They passed beneath the walls of the amphitheatre and by Constantine's triumphal arch. Like all the innumerable fountains of the city, the Meta Sudans stood dry; around the base of the rayed colossus of Apollo, goats were browsing. Thence they went along by the Temple of Venus and Rome, its giant columns yet unshaken, its roof gleaming with gilded bronze; and so under the Arch of Titus, when, with a sharp turn to the left, they began the ascent of the Palatine.
The vast buildings which covered the Imperial hill, though discoloured by the lapse of ages and hung with ivy, had suffered little diminution of their external majesty; time had made them venerable, but had not shattered their walls. For two centuries and a half, they had stood all but desolate, and within that time had thrice been sacked by barbarians, yet something of the riches and art which made their ancient glory was still discoverable in the countless halls and chambers; statues, busts, mural paintings, triumphs of mosaic, pictured hangings, had in many parts escaped the spoiler and survived ruin; whilst everywhere appeared the magnificence of rare stones, the splendours of royal architecture, the beauty of unsurpassed carving. Though owls nested where empresses were wont to sleep, and nettles pierced where the lord of the world feasted his courtiers, this was still the Palace of those who styled themselves. Ever August; each echo seemed to repeat an immortal name, and in every gallery seemed to move the shadows of a majestic presence.
Belisarius had not resided here, preferring for his abode the palace of the Pincian. His successor in the military government of Rome chose a habitation on the deserted hill, in that portion of its complex structures which had been raised by Vespasian and his sons. Thither the two visitors were now directing their steps. Having passed a gateway, where Marcian answered with a watchword the challenge of the guard, they ascended a broad flight of stairs, and stood before an entrance flanked with two great pillars of Numidian marble, toned by time to a hue of richest orange. Here stood soldiers, to whom again the password was given. Entering, they beheld a great hall, surrounded by a colonnade of the Corinthian order, whereon had been lavished exquisite carving; in niches behind the columns stood statues in basalt, thrice the size of life, representing Roman emperors, and at the far end was a tribune with a marble throne. This, once the hall of audience, at present served as a sort of antechamber; here and there loitered a little group of citizens, some of whom had been waiting since early morning for speech with the commander; in one corner, soldiers played at dice, in another a notary was writing at a table before which stood two ecclesiastics. Voices and footsteps made a faint, confused reverberation under the immense vault.
Anxiously glancing about him, Basil followed his conductor across the hall and out into a peristyle, its pavement richly tesselated, and the portico, still elaborately adorned with work in metal and in marble, giving proof of still greater magnificence in bygone time; pedestals had lost their statues, and blank spaces on the wall told of precious panelling torn off. Beyond, they came to a curtained doorway, where they were detained for some moments by the sentry; then the curtain was drawn aside, and Basil found himself in the triclinium of the Flavian palace, now used by the Greek general as his public reception room. Its size was not much less than that of the hall of audience; its decoration in the same grandiose style. Enormous pillars of granite supported the roof; statues stood, or had stood, all around; the pavement, composed of serpentine, porphyry, and Numidian marble in many hues, was a superb work of art. But Basil saw only the human figures before him. In a chair covered with furs sat a man of middle age, robust, fair-complexioned, with a keen look in his pale blue eyes and something of the wolfish about his mouth. Bessas had long ago given proof of valour, and enjoyed repute as a general, but since his holding command in Rome, his vices, chief of which was avarice, showed much more prominently than the virtues which had advanced him; he used the Imperial authority chiefly to enrich himself, in this respect, it is true, merely acting in harmony with the Emperor's representative at Ravenna, and with: the other Greek generals scattered about Italy, but exhibiting in his methods a shrewdness and an inhumanity not easily rivalled. Behind his chair stood several subordinates, and on a stool before him sat a noble recently arrived as envoy from Byzantium.
Having been previously instructed as to his behaviour in this redoubtable presence, Basil followed the example of Marcian in approaching with bent head to within a distance of three paces, then dropping to his knees, and bowing so as almost to touch the ground with his forehead. He heard a gruff voice command him to rise.
'So this is the heir of the Senator Maximus,' said Bessas, much as he might have spoken of viewing a horse that interested him. 'What is his name?'
'Basilius, my lord,' replied Marcian, with grave respect.
'And what is he doing? Why does not a limber lad like that serve the Emperor?'
'Your Magnanimity will recollect that the lord Basil had permission to attend Maximus into Campania, whence he is but now returned.'
'Can't he speak for himself?' growled Bessas, turning sharply upon Marcian. 'You have a tongue, lord Basil? Do you only use it among the wenches?'
A subdued laugh sounded behind the commander's chair. The envoy from Byzantium showed more discreet appreciation of the jest. And Basil, his head bowed, would fain have concealed a face burning with angry shame.
'I will do my best,' he replied in a steady voice, 'to answer any question your excellence may put to me.'
'Come, that's better,' said the general, with that affectation of bluff good-nature which always veiled his designs. 'I like the look of you, my good Basil; who knows but we may be friends? By the bye, was there not some special reason for your coming to see me?'
'Your excellence summoned me.'
'Yes, yes, I remember. That affair of the Gothic wench.' Bessas checked himself, glanced at the envoy, and corrected his phrase. 'The Gothic lady, I would say, who has somehow been spirited out of sight. What can you tell us of her, lord Basil? It has been whispered to me that if you cannot lead us to this beauty's hiding-place, nobody can.'
Basil answered in the only way consistent with prudence: he not only denied all knowledge of where Veranilda was to be found, but spoke as though her fate had little or no interest for him, whereas he professed himself greatly troubled by the disappearance of his cousin Aurelia. It seemed that Petronilla did not purpose delivering Veranilda to the Greeks. Perhaps she did not yet understand the import of their inquiry. That it was she who held Veranilda prisoner he had less doubt than ever, and boldly he declared his conviction. But even, whilst speaking, he thought with dread of the possibility of Veranilda's being delivered to Bessas; for who could assure him that this sinister-looking Thracian would respect the mandate received from Byzantium? On the other hand, who could say to what sufferings and perils his beloved was exposed whilst Petronilla's captive? He preferred the risks to follow upon her surrender. Did he but know where she was there would at least be a hope of rescuing her.
'By Christ!' exclaimed Bessas, when he had listened intently to all Basil's replies, 'this is a strange business. I begin to think, excellent lord Basil, that you are as much deceived in your suspicions of the lady Petronilla as she is in her suspicions of you. These two wenches -- ladies, I would say -- may have reasons of their own for hiding; or somebody of whom you know nothing may have carried them off. How is this Aurelia to look upon? Young and comely, I warrant.'
Basil briefly described his cousin; whereupon the listener gave a shrug.
'We will talk of it again, to-morrow or the day after. Hold yourself in readiness, lord Basil -- you hear? -- to come when bidden. And, hark you, bring the senator's will, that I may look it over myself. Trust me, I will see that this lady Aurelia suffers no wrong; if necessary, I will myself hold her property in trust. They tell me she is a heretic -- that must be inquired into. But take no thought for the matter, my good Basil; trust me, you shall be relieved from all responsibilities. Go in peace!'
Bessas rose, impatient to have done with business. In the little hippodrome, hard by, an entertainment had been prepared for this afternoon: female equestrians were to perform perilous feats; there was to be a fight between a man and a boar; with other trifles, such as served to pass the time till dinner. In the entrance hall waited messengers from Ravenna, who for hours had urgently requested audience; but, partly because he knew that their despatches would be disagreeable, in part because he liked playing at royalty, the commander put them off till to-morrow. Even so did he postpone an inspection of a certain part of the city wall, repeatedly suggested to him by one of his subordinates. Leisure and accumulation of wealth were obscuring the man's soldierly qualities. He gave little heed to the progress of the war, and scoffed at the fear that Totila might ere long march against Rome.
Basil walked in gloomy silence. The interview had inflamed his pride. Mentally he repeated the oath never to acquiesce in this Byzantine tyranny, and he burned for the opportunity of open war against it. When they were at a safe distance from the Palatine, Marcian warned his friend against the Greek's indulgent manner; let him not suppose that Bessas spoke one word sincerely.
'His aim at present, I see, is to put you off your guard; and doubtless he is playing the like game with Petronilla. You will be spied upon, day and night -- I myself, you understand, being one of the spies, but only one, unfortunately. This Thracian is not so easy to deal with as the Hun at Cumae. There have been moments when I thought he suspected me. If ever I vanish, Basil ----'
He ceased with a significant look.
'Why does Totila delay?' exclaimed Basil, with a passionate gesture.
'He delays not. It is wisdom to conquer Campania before coming hither. Another month will see him before Neapolis.'
'Could I but find Veranilda, make her my own, and put her in safety, I would go straight to the king's camp, and serve him as best I might.'
Marcian looked steadily at the speaker, smiling strangely.
'Why do you look at me so?' cried Basil. 'You doubt me? You distrust my courage?'
'Not for a moment. But why should this depend upon the finding of Veranilda, my best Basil? Having found her, having made her your own, will it be easier than now to take your chance of death or of captivity? When was a Roman wont to let his country's good wait upon his amorous desire?'
They were on the Sacred Way, between the Basilica of Constantine and the Atrium of Vesta. Struck to the heart by his friend's words, words such as Marcian had never yet addressed to him, Basil stood mute and let his eyes wander: he gazed at the Forum, at the temples beyond it, at the Capitol with its desecrated sanctuary of Jupiter towering above. Here, where the citizens once thronged about their business and their pleasure, only a few idlers were in view, a few peasants with carts, and a drove of bullocks just come in from the country.
'You would have me forget her?' he said at length, in a voice distressfully subdued.
'I spoke only as I thought.'
'And your thought condemned me -- despised me, Marcian?'
'Not so. Pitied you rather, as one whose noble nature has fallen into trammels. Have you not long known, 0 Basil, how I think of the thing called love?'
'Because you have never known it!' exclaimed Basil. 'My love is my life. Having lost Veranilda, I have lost myself; without her I can do nothing. Were she dead I could fling myself into the struggle with our enemies, all the fiercer because I should care not whether I lived or died; but to lose her thus, to know that she may be in Rome, longing for me as I for her -- to think that we may never hold each other's hands again -- oh, it tears my heart, and makes me weak as a child. You cannot understand me; you have never loved!'
'May such knowledge be far from me!' said Marcian, with unwonted vehemence. 'Do you feel no shame in being so subdued to the flesh?'
'Shame? Shame in the thought that I love Veranilda?'
Marcian seemed to make an effort to control a passion that wrought in him; he was paler than of wont, and, instead of the familiar irony, a cold, if not cruel, austerity appeared in his eyes and on his lips. He shunned Basil's astonished gaze.
'Let us not speak of this,' broke from him impatiently. 'You understand me as little as I you. Forgive me, Basil -- I have been talking idly -- I scarce know what I said. It is sometimes thus with me. Something takes hold upon me, and I speak at random. Come, come, dear friend of my heart, we will find your Veranilda; trust me, we will.'
Three days went by, then Basil was summoned again to the Palatine, where he had an interview with Bessas alone. This time the commander hardly spoke of Veranilda; his talk was of the possessions left by Maximus, whose testament, when he had read it, he said that he would take care of until the lost daughter was discovered; he inquired closely, too, as to Basil's own wealth, and let fall a remark that the Roman nobles would soon be called upon to support the army fighting for their liberties against the barbarians. When next called, let Basil have ready and bring with him an exact statement of the money in his hands, and of the income he expected to derive from his property during the present year. Thereupon he was dismissed with a nod and a smile, which made him quiver in rage for an hour after. This happened in early morning. The day was overcast, and a cold wind blew from the mountains; Basil had never known such misery as fell upon him when he re-entered his gloomy, silent house. On the way home he had passed two funerals -- their hurried aspect proving that the dead were victims of the plague, that lues inguinaria which had broken out in Italy two years ago, and with varying intensity continued throughout the land. Throwing himself down upon a couch, he moaned in utter wretchedness, fearful of the pestilence, yet saying to himself that he cared not if it seized upon him. His moans became sobs; he wept for a long time, then lay, half soothed by the burst of hysterical passion, with eyes turned blankly to the ceiling and a hand clenched upon. his breast.
In his solitude he often talked with Felix, and more intimately perhaps than with either Decius or Marcian. This trusty servant held communication with a man in the household of Petronilla, and from him learnt what he could as to the lady's movements; but nothing was as yet discoverable which threw light on the mystery of Aurelia and Veranilda. To-day, however, Felix returned from the other side of the Tiber with what sounded like important news. Petronilla had left home this morning in her carriage, had gone forth from the city by one of the southern gates, and, after an absence of two or three hours, had returned, bringing with her some one, a woman, whom she took into her house and kept there in privacy. He who related this to Felix declared that his mistress had only visited the church of her patron saint on the Via Ardeatina, but who the woman might be that she had brought back with her, he did not pretend to know. This story so excited Basil that he would have hastened forthwith across the Tiber, had not Felix persuaded him that at this late hour nothing could be done. After a sleepless night he set out at sunrise, accompanied by Felix alone. Whether he would be admitted at Petronilla's door was quite uncertain; in any case, it would serve no purpose to go thither with a band of attendants, for the Anician house was sure to be strongly guarded. All he could do was to present himself in the hope of seeing Petronilla, and take his chance of learning something from her when they stood face to face.
On horseback he went down by the Clivus Scauri, followed the road between the Circus Maximus and the Aventine, crossed the river by the Aemilian bridge (the nearer bridge of Probus was falling into ruins), and then turned to the left. This part of the transtiberine district was inhabited by poor folk. Something unusual seemed to have happened among them just now: groups stood about in eager talk, and a little further on, in front of a church, a noisy crowd was assembled, with soldiers among them. Having made inquiry, Felix explained the disturbance to his master. It was due to the rapacity of the Greek commander, who, scorning no gain, however small, was seizing upon the funds of the trade guilds; this morning the common chest of the potters had been pillaged, not without resistance, which resulted in the death of a soldier; the slayer had fled to St. Cecilia's church, and taken sanctuary. Basil's feeling, as he listened, was one of renewed bitterness against the Greeks; but to the potters themselves he gave little thought, such folk and their wrongs appearing of small moment to one of his birth.
Pursuing the road towards the Portuensian Gate, he was soon in sight of the palace where for generations had dwelt the heads of the Anician family. It lay on a gentle slope above the river, at the foot of the Janiculan Hill; around it spread public porticoes, much decayed, and what had once been ornamental gardens, now the pasture of goats. As Basil had expected, he was kept waiting without the doors until the porter had received orders regarding him. Permitted at length to enter, he passed by a number of slaves who stood, as if on guard, in the atrium, and, though seeming to be alone in the room beyond, he heard subdued voices from behind the curtains of the doorways, which told him that he was under observation. All parts of this great house were perfectly familiar to him, and had it been possible to conduct a search, he would soon have ascertained whether she he sought was kept imprisoned here; but, unless he took the place by storm, how could he hope to make any discovery? Whilst he was impatiently reflecting, Petronilla entered. She moved towards him with her wonted dignity of mien, but in the look with which she examined him, as she paused at two paces' distance, it was easy to perceive distrust, and a certain inquietude.
'Your leisure at length permits you to visit me, dear lord Basil,' she began coldly.
'My leisure, indeed,' he replied, 'has not been great since the day on which you left Surrentum. But the more plainly we speak to each other the better. I come now to ask whether you will release Veranilda to me, instead of waiting until you are compelled to release her to the Greeks.'
Before replying, Petronilla clapped her hands, then stood waiting for a moment, and said at length:
'You can now speak without hearers. I did not think you would be so imprudent in your words. Go on: say what you will.'
She seated herself, and looked at Basil with a contemptuous smile. He, surprised by her behaviour, spoke on with angry carelessness.
'I neither cared before, nor do I now, if any of your servants overhear me. No more credit would be given to anything they told of me than is given to what you yourself say I might begin by warning you of the dangers to which you are exposed, but no doubt you have calculated them, and think the price not too much to pay for your revenge. Well, with your revenge I have no wish to interfere. Hold Aurelia prisoner as long as you will, or as long as you can. I speak only of Veranilda, against whom you can feel no enmity. Will you release her to me? It will only be anticipating by a few days her release to Bessas. Veranilda in his hands, trust me, he will care little what becomes of Aurelia.'
'I listen to you,' replied Petronilla, 'because I am curious to learn into what extravagances your ignoble passion drives you. I had been told, but could hardly believe, that you charged me with having seized these women. Now I see that you really are foolish enough to think it.' She threw her head back in a silent laugh of scorn. 'Child -- for you are a child in wit though man in years -- do you not live at large in Rome, free to come and go as you will?'
'What of that?'
'Am not I also a free woman? Did I not yesterday visit the church of the blessed Petronilla, and might I not, if so I had willed, have escaped instead of returning to the city?'
'What has this to do with the matter?' demanded Basil.
'Child! child!' cried the other, as if with boundless contempt. 'You ask that, knowing why this Veranilda is sought by the Greeks? Were they truly still in search of her, and were you, were I, suspected of keeping her hidden, do you suppose we should be free, and not rather locked as close as any prison in Rome could hold us?'
The listener stood mute. So vehement was Petronilla's speech, and so convincing, thus delivered, seemed her argument, that Basil felt his heart sink. Had she, then, outwitted him? Was he really playing the part of a simpleton, at whom people laughed? He remembered the seeming indifference of Bessas touching Veranilda at the second interview, natural enough if the maiden had already passed into the Greek's hands. Two days ago Marcian had told him that Petronilla must needs be aware of Veranilda's importance, seeing that it was now common knowledge in Roman society. But a thought flashed into his mind, and he lifted up his head again.
'This is not true!' he exclaimed. 'If Bessas had found her, I should have known it.'
'Pray, how? Does your foolish little lordship imagine that Bessas must needs have told you all he has done?'
'Bessas? no,' he answered, his eyes burning with hatred as they searched her face. 'But I have other means of learning the truth. You try vainly to deceive me.'
'As you will, good nephew,' said the lady, as if indulgently. 'Believe as you list, and talk on, for you entertain me.'
'One thing I have to say,' pursued Basil, 'which you will perhaps find less amusing.' He had lost control of himself, and spoke in a low tone of fierce menace, all his body quivering. 'If I learn that Veranilda is in the hands of the Greeks, and that you delivered her to them -- by the God above us, your life shall pay for it.'
Petronilla's face hardened till its cruel sternness outdid any expression of hatred possible to Basil's features.
'Keep your ruffian threats for more suitable occasion, such as you will find among your friends the Goths.' She spoke coldly and deliberately. 'If enslavement to a yellow. haired barbarian had not muddled your wits, you would long ago have seen who it was that has played you false.'
Basil stared at her, his passion chilled with surprise and alarm.
'Played me false!' he echoed involuntarily.
'Who is it,' continued Petronilla with slow scorn, 'that you have trusted blindly? To whom have you looked for guidance and protection? Who has fostered your suspicion against me?'
An intolerable pang went through the listener's heart.
'That's but another lie!' he exclaimed furiously. '0 basest of women born!'
A hand was upon his dagger. Petronilla rose and stepped back a little, glancing towards one of the drawn curtains.
'You have threatened my life,' she said in an undertone. 'Remember that it is you who are in my power. If I raise my voice on one word, the next moment you will lie pierced by a score of weapons. Moderate your insults: my temper is not meek.'
Basil thought for a moment with painful intentness.
'Speak plainly,' he said at length. 'You would have me suspect ----? I am ashamed to utter the name.'
'Keep it to yourself and muse upon it.'
'You dare bid me think that he, my dearest and most loyal friend, has infamously betrayed me? Now I know indeed that you have lied to me in every word, for this is the last audacity of baseness. You hope to poison my soul against him, and so, whilst guarding yourself, bring more evil upon those you hate. But you have overreached yourself. Only cunning driven desperate could have devised this trick. Listen to me again, before it is too late. Give me Veranilda. I take upon myself all the peril. It shall be made to appear that I have all along kept her in hiding, and that you knew nothing of her. Be advised before the worst comes upon you. I will escape with her to a place of safety that I know of; you will be declared innocent, and no one will care to ask what has become of Aurelia. Think well; you spoke of prisons, but the Greeks have worse than imprisonment for those who incur their wrath. Will Bessas forego revenge when, after much trouble, he has wrested the captive from your hands? Think!'
Petronilla's countenance, fixed as a face in marble, still suggested no thought save one of scorn; but there was a brief silence before she replied.
'I would not have believed,' she said calmly, 'that a man could be so besotted with foolish passions. Listen, you in turn. Where those women are, I know as little as do you yourself. I think, and have good reason for thinking, that the Goth is already on her way to Constantinople, but I have no certainty of it. The one thing I do surely know, is that you are hoodwinked and baffled by the man you trust.'
A groan of rage and anguish broke from Basil. He wrung his bands together.
'You lie! A thousand times you lie! Either Veranilda or Aurelia is in this house. Who was it you brought back with you yesterday when you returned from beyond the walls?'
The listener uttered a short, fierce laugh.
'So that is what brought you here? 0 fool! Think you I should have no more wisdom than that? Since you must needs pry into my doings yesterday, you shall hear them. I went to the church of the holy Petronilla, to pray there against all the dangers that environ me -- against the wiles of the wicked, the cruelty of violent men, the sickness which is rife about us. And when I rose from before the altar, the servant of God who passes his life there, who is pleased to regard me with kindness, led me apart into the sacristy, where sat a woman who had lost her sight. She had travelled, he told me, from Mediolanum, because of a vision in which she had been bidden to seek the tomb of the daughter of the chief Apostle; and, whilst praying in the church, her darkness had been illumined by a vision of the saint herself, who bade her go into the city, and abide in the house of the first who offered her welcome, and there at length she would surely receive her sight. So I spoke with the woman, who, though in poverty, is of noble blood, and when I had offered to make her welcome, she gladly came with me, and straightway we returned to Rome. And I brought with me oil from the lamp of the saint, wherewith, at the hours of prayer, I cross my forehead, that no evil may befall me. So, you have heard. Believe or not, as you list, 0 Basil.'
Whether true or not, Basil had no choice but to accept the story. He looked helplessly about him. If by killing this woman he could have obtained liberty to search through every chamber of the great house, his dagger would have leapt at her breast; and that Petronilla well knew; whence the defiant look in her eyes as they watched his slightest movement.
'What is your next question?' she said. 'I am at leisure for a little longer.'
'If Veranilda is in the hands of the Greeks, where is Aurelia?'
'I should be glad to think,' replied the lady, 'that she has withdrawn from the world to expiate her sins.'
'Would you have me believe that Marcian knows that secret also?'
'I respect your innocence,' answered Petronilla, with a smile, 'and will say no more.'
Again Basil stood for a moment voiceless in wrath. Then he threw up an arm, and spoke with terrible vehemence.
'Woman, if you have lied to me, wickedly seeking to put enmity between me and my friend, may the pest smite you, and may you perish unforgiven of man and God!'
Petronilla blanched not. For one instant he glared at her, and was gone.
Marcian's abode was in the Via Lata, the thoroughfare which ran straight and broad, directly northwards, from the Capitoline Hill to the Flaminian Gate. Hard by were the headquarters of the city watch, a vast building, now tenanted by a few functionaries whose authority had fallen into contempt; and that long colonnade of Hadrian, called the Septa, where merchants once exposed their jewels and fabrics to the crowd of sauntering wealthy, and where nowadays a few vendors of slaves did their business amid the crumbling columns. Surrounded by these monuments of antiquity, the few private residences still inhabited had a dreary, if not a mean, aspect. Some of them -- and Marcian's dwelling was one -- had been built in latter times with material taken from temple or portico or palace in ruins; thus they combined richness of detail with insignificant or clumsy architecture. An earthquake of a few years ago, followed by a great inundation of the Tiber, had wrought disaster among these modern structures. A pillar of Marcian's porch, broken into three pieces, had ever since been lying before the house, and a marble frieze, superb carving of the Antonine age, which ran across the façade, showed gaps where pieces had been shattered away.
His family, active in public services under Theodoric, had suffered great losses in the early years of the war; and Marcian, who, as a very young man, held a post under the Praetorian Prefect at Ravenna, found himself reduced to narrow circumstances. After the fall of Ravenna, he came to Rome (accompanied on the journey by Basil, with whom his intimacy then began), and ere long, necessity driving him to expedients for which he had no natural inclination, he entered upon that life of double treachery which he had avowed to his friend. As the world went, Marcian was an honest man: he kept before him an ideal of personal rectitude; he believed himself, and hitherto with reason, incapable of falsity to those who trusted him in the relations of private life. Moreover, he had a sense of religion, which at times, taking the form of an overpowering sense of sin, plunged him into gloom. Though burdened in conscience with no crime, he was subject in a notable degree to that malady of his world, the disposition to regard all human kind, and himself especially, as impure, depraved. Often at the mercy of his passions, he refrained from marriage chiefly on this very account, the married state seeming to him a mere compromise with the evil of the flesh; but in his house were two children, born to him by a slave now dead, and these he would already have sent into a monastery, but that human affection struggled against what he deemed duty. The man lived in dread of eternal judgment; he could not look at a setting sun without having his thought turned to the fires of hell, and a night of wakefulness, common enough in his imperfect health, shook him with horrors unutterable. Being of such mind and temper, it was strange that he had not long ago joined the multitude of those who day by day fled from worldly life into ascetic seclusion; what withheld him was a spark of the ancestral spirit, some drops of the old Roman blood, prompting his human nature to assert and justify itself. Hence the sympathy between him and Basil, both being capable of patriotism, and feeling a desire in the depths of their hearts to live as they would have lived had they been born in an earlier time. But whereas Basil nursed this disposition, regarding it as altogether laudable, Marcian could only see in it an outcome of original sin, and after every indulgence of such mundane thoughts did penance as for something worse than weakness. His father had died in an anguish of compunction for a life stained with sensuality; his mother had killed herself by excessive rigours of penitence; these examples were ever before his mind. Yet he seldom spoke, save to spiritual counsellors, of this haunting trouble, and only the bitterness of envy, an envy entirely human, had drawn from him the words which so astonished Basil in their last conversation. Indeed, the loves of Basil and Veranilda made a tumult in his soul; at times it seemed to him that he hated his friend, so intolerable was the jealousy that racked him. Veranilda he had never seen, but the lover's rapture had created in his imagination a face and form of matchless beauty which he could not cease from worshipping. He took this for a persecution of the fiend, and strove against it by all methods known to him. About his body he wore things that tortured; he fasted to the point of exhaustion; he slept -- if sleep came to him -- on a bare stone floor; some hours of each day he spent in visiting churches, where he prayed ardently.
Basil, when he had rushed forth from the Anicianum, rode straightway to the Via Lata, and presented himself at Marcian's door. The porter said that his master had been absent since dawn, but Basil none the less entered, and, in the room where he and his friend were wont to talk, threw himself upon a couch to wait. He lay sunk in the most sombre thoughts, until at the door appeared Sagaris, who with the wonted suave servility, begged permission to speak to him.
'Speak on,' said Basil gloomily, fixing his eyes upon the oriental visage, so little reassuring to one harassed by suspicions.
'It is regarding my dear lord, Illustrious, that I would say a humble word, if your nobility will bear with me.'
'What can that be?'
'I am guilty, I know, of much presumption, but I entreat your nobility's patience, for in truth it is only my love and my fears that embolden me to speak. What I would make known to you, Illustrious, is that for more than two whole days my dear lord has not broken bread. Since our return to Rome he has fasted all but continuously, at the same time inflicting upon himself many other penances of the severest kind. For this, I well know, he will have his reward in the eternal life; but when I note his aspect, I am overcome with fear lest we should lose him too soon. This morning, when I was helping him to dress, he sank down, and lay for a time as one dead. My lord would rebuke me severely if he knew that I had ventured to speak of these things; but with you, Illustrious, I feel that I am in no danger. You will understand me, and pardon me.'
Basil had raised himself to a sitting position. Supporting himself on one hand, he stared straight before him, and only spoke when a movement on the part of the servant betrayed impatience.
'This has gone on, you say, since your return to Rome? Was it your lord's habit to do such penance on his travels?'
'Never in this extreme, though I have always marvelled at his piety.'
Again Basil kept a long silence.
'You have done well to tell me,' he said at length; then, with a wave of the hand, dismissed the Syrian.
It was nearly mid-day when Marcian returned. At the sight of Basil his pale, weary countenance assumed a troubled smile. He embraced his friend, kissing him affectionately on both cheeks, and sat down by him with a sigh of fatigue.
'What makes you so wan?' asked Basil, peering into his eyes.
'I sleep ill.'
'Why so? Is it pain or thought that keeps you wakeful?'
'Both, perhaps,' answered Marcian. He paused, reflected gloomily, and went on in a subdued voice. 'Do you think often, Basil, of the eternal fire?'
'Not often. Sometimes, of course.'
'Last night I had a dream, which assuredly was a temptation of the evil one. My father stood before me, and said, "Fear not, Marcian, for there is no Gehenna. It is but the vision of man's tormented conscience." And I awoke with a great joy. But at once the truth came upon me; and until dawn I prayed for strength to resist that perilous solace. This morning I have talked long with a holy man, opening my heart to him, that he might finally resolve my doubts. I said to him: "Slaves who have committed a fault are punished that they may amend. To what purpose is the punishment of the wicked after death, since there can be no amendment?" and he replied: "My son, the wicked are punished in Gehenna that the just may feel gratitude to the divine grace which has preserved them from such a doom." "But," I objected, "ought not the just to pray for their enemies in such evil case?" His answer was prompt: "The time for prayer is past. The blessed concur in the judgment of God!"'
Basil listened with bent head.
'Maximus,' he said presently, 'often doubted of eternal torment; and my cousin Decius has more than once confessed to me that he believes it not at all, being strengthened therein by his friend the philosopher Simplicius. I, 0 Marcian, would fain think it a dream -- yet there are evil doings in this world which make me fear that it may be true.'
'You have seen Bessas again?'
'Yes. And I have seen Petronilla.'
His eyes on the listener, Basil recounted his conversation of this morning, all save that part of it which related to Marcian. He could detect no sign of guilty uneasiness in his friend's face, but saw that Marcian grew very thoughtful.
'Is not this a shamelessness in falsehood which passes belief?' were his last words.
'If indeed it be falsehood,' replied Marcian, meeting the other's eyes. 'I will confess that, this day or two, I have suspected Bessas of knowing more than he pretends.'
'What?' Basil exclaimed. 'You think Veranilda is really in his power?'
Marcian answered with a return to the old irony.
'I would not venture to set bounds to the hypocrisy and the mendacity and the pertinacity of woman, but, after another conversation with Petronilla, I am shaken in my belief that she still holds her prisoners. She may, in truth, have surrendered them. What makes me inclined to think it, is the fierceness with which she now turns on me, accusing me of the whole plot from the first. That, look you, would be sweet revenge to a woman defeated. Why,' he added, with a piercing but kindly look, 'do you hide from me that she sought to persuade you of my treachery? Is it, 0 Basil, because you feared lest she spoke the truth?'
Flushing under that honest gaze, Basil sprang up and seized his friend's hand. Tears came into his eyes as he avowed the truth and entreated pardon.
'It was only because misery has made me all but mad. Nay, I knew that she lied, but I could not rest till I had the assurance of it from your own lips. You think, then, dearest Marcian, that Veranilda is lost to me for ever? You believe it is true that she is already on the way to Constantinople?'
Marcian hoped it with all his heart, for with the disappearance of Veranilda this strange, evil jealousy of his would fade away; and he had many reasons for thinking that the loss of his Gothic love would be the best thing that could happen to Basil. At the same time, he felt his friend's suffering, and could not bring himself to inflict another wound.
'If so,' he replied, 'the Greek has less confidence in me than I thought, and I must take it as a warning. It may be. On the other hand, there is the possibility that Petronilla's effrontery outwits us all. Of course she has done her best to ruin both of us, and perhaps is still trying to persuade Bessas that you keep Veranilda in hiding, whilst I act as your accomplice. If this be the case, we shall both of us know the smell of a prison before long, and perchance the taste of torture. What say you? Shall we wait for that chance, or speed away into Campania, and march with the king against Neapolis?'
Though he smiled, there was no mistaking Marcian's earnestness. For the moment he had shaken off his visions of Tartarus, and was his saner self once more.
'If I knew that she has gone!' cried Basil wretchedly. 'If I knew!'
'So you take your chance?'
'Listen! You speak of prison, of torture. Marcian, can you not help, me to capture that woman, and to get from her the truth?'
Basil's face grew terrible as he spoke. He quivered, his teeth ground together.
'I, too, have thought of it,' replied the other coldly. 'But it is difficult and dangerous.'
They talked yet awhile, until Marcian, who looked cadaverous, declared his need of food, and they went to the mid-day meal.
A few days went by. Basil was occupied with the business of his inheritance. He had messengers to despatch to estates in Lucania and Apulia. Then came news that a possession of Maximus' in the south had been invaded and seized by a neighbour; for which outrage there was little hope of legal remedy in the present state of affairs; only by the strong hand could Basil vindicate his right. Trouble was caused him by a dispute with one of the legatees, a poor kinsman who put an unexpected interpretation upon the item of the will which concerned him. Another poor kinsman, to whom Maximus had bequeathed a share in certain property in Rome, wished to raise money on this security. Basil himself could not lend the desired sum, for, though lord of great estates, he found himself after Chorsoman's pillage of the strong room at Surrentum, scarcely able to meet immediate claims upon him under the will; but he consented to accompany his relative to a certain moneychanger, of whom perchance a loan might be obtained. This man of business, an Alexandrian, had his office on the Capitoline Hill, in that open space between the Capitol and the Arx, where merchants were still found; he sat in a shadowed corner of a portico, before him a little table on which coins were displayed, and at his back a small dark shop, whence came a confused odour of stuffs and spices. Long and difficult were the negotiations. To Basil's surprise, the Alexandrian, though treating him with the utmost respect, evidently gave little weight to his guarantee in money matters; as to property in Rome, he seemed to regard it as the most insubstantial of securities. Only on gems and precious metals would he consent to lend a sum of any importance.
Whilst this debate was in progress, a litter, gaudy and luxurious, borne by eight slaves clad in yellow, with others like them before and behind, came to a stop close by, and from it alighted a lady whose gorgeous costume matched the brilliance of her vehicle and retinue. She was young and beautiful, with dark, oriental features, and a bearing which aimed at supremity of arrogance. Having stepped down, she stood at the edge of the portico, languidly gazing this way and that, with the plain intention of exhibiting herself to the loiterers whom her appearance drew together; at every slightest movement, the clink of metal sounded from her neck, her arms, her ankles; stones glistened on her brow and on her hands; about her she shed a perfume like that wafted from the Arabian shore.
The Greek merchant, as soon as he was aware of her arrival, ran forward and stood obsequiously before her, until she deigned to notice him.
'I would speak with you. See that we are private.'
'Noble lady,' he replied, 'the lord Basilius, heir of the Senator Maximus, is within. I will straightway beg him to defer his business.'
The lady turned and gazed into the dusky shop.
'He is not alone, I see.'
'A kinsman is with him, noble lady.'
'Then bid the kinsman go his way, and keep apart, you, until you are summoned. I will speak for a moment with the lord Basilius.'
The Alexandrian, masking a smile, drew near to Basil, and whispered that the lady Heliodora demanded to see him alone. A gesture of annoyance was the first reply, but, after an instant's reflection, Basil begged his kinsman to withdraw. Heliodora then entered the shop, which was nothing more than an open recess, with a stone counter half across the entrance, and behind it a couple of wooden stools. Upon one of these the lady seated herself, and Basil, who had greeted her only with a movement of the head, stood waiting.
'So you will not sup with me?' began Heliodora, in a voice of bantering indifference. 'You will not come to see me? You will not write to me? It is well. I care less than the clipping of a finger-nail.'
'So I would have it,' Basil replied coldly.
'Good. Then we are both satisfied. This is much better than making pretence of what we don't feel, and playing a comedy with our two selves for spectators. You amused me for a while; that is over; now you amuse me in another way. Turn a little towards the light. Let me have a look at your pretty face, Basilidion.'
She spoke with a Greek accent, mingling now and then with the Roman speech a Greek word or exclamation, and her voice, sonorous rather than melodious, one moment seemed about to strike the note of anger, at another seemed softening to tenderness.
'With your leave,' said Basil, 'I will be gone. I have matters of some importance to attend to.'
'With your leave,' echoed Heliodora, 'I will detain you yet a little. For you, Basilidion, there is only one matter of importance, and it may be that I can serve you better therein than any you esteem your graver friends. There, now, I see your face. Holy Mary I how wan and worn it is. From my heart I pity you, Basilidion. Come now, tell me the story. I have heard fifty versions, some credible, some plain fable. Confide in me; who knows but I may help you.'
'Scoff as you will,' was his answer. 'It is your privilege. But in truth, lady, I have little time to waste.'
'And in truth, lord, your courtesy has suffered since you began to peck and pine for this little Hun.'
'Oh, I cry pardon! Goth, I should have said. Indeed, there are degrees of barbarism -- but, as you will. I say again, I care not the clipping of my smallest nail.' She held her hand towards him; very white it was, and soft and shapely, but burdened with too many rings. 'Tell me all, and I will help you. Tell me nothing, and have nothing for your pains.'
'Help me?' exclaimed Basil, in scornful impatience. 'Am I such a fool as to think you would wish to help me, even if you could?'
'Listen to me, Basil.' She spoke in a deep note which was half friendliness, half menace. 'I am not wont to have my requests refused. Leave me thus, and you have one more enemy -- an enemy more to be dreaded than all the rest. Already I know something of this story, and I can know the whole of it as soon as I will; but what I want now is to hear the truth about your part in it. You have lost your little Goth; of that I need no assurance. But tell me how it came about.'
Basil stood with bent head. In the portico, at a little distance, there began to sound the notes of a flute played by some itinerant musician.
'You dare refuse me?' said Heliodora, after waiting a moment. 'You are a bolder man than I thought.'
'Ask what you wish to know,' broke from the other. 'Recount to you I will not. Put questions, and I will reply if I think fit.'
Heliodora smiled, with a movement which made all her trappings of precious metal jingle as though triumphantly. And she began to question, tracking out all Basil's relations with Veranilda from their first meeting at Cumae to the day of the maiden's disappearance. His answers, forced from him partly by vague fear, partly by as vague a hope, were the briefest possible, but in every case he told the truth.
'It is well,' said Heliodora, when the interrogation was over. 'Poor, poor Basilidion! How ill he has been used! And not even a kiss from the little Goth. Or am I mistaken? Perhaps ----'
'Be silent!' exclaimed Basil harshly.
'Oh, I will not pry into chaste secrets. For the present, enough. Go your ways, Basil, and take courage. I keep faith, as you know; and that I am disposed to be your friend is not your standing here, alive and well, a sufficient proof?'
She had risen, and, as she uttered these words, her eyes gleamed large in the dusk.
'When you wish to see me,' she added, 'come to my house. To you it is always open. I may perchance send you a message. If so, pay heed to it.'
Basil was turning away.
'What! Not even the formal courtesy? Your manners have indeed declined, my poor Basil.'
With an abrupt, awkward movement, he took her half offered hand, and touched the rings with his lips; then hastened away.
On the edge of the cluster of idlers who were listening to the flute player stood his needy kinsman. Basil spoke with him for a moment, postponed their business, and, with a sign to the two slaves in attendance, walked on. By the Clivus Argentarius he descended to the Forum. In front of the Curia stood the state' carriage of the City Prefect, for the Senate had been called together this morning to hear read some decree newly arrived from Byzantium; and as Basil drew near he saw the Prefect, with senators about him, come forth and descend the steps. These dignitaries, who wore with but ill grace the ancient toga, were evidently little pleased by what they had heard; they talked under their breath together, many of them, no doubt, recalling sadly the honour they were wont to receive from King Theodoric. As their president drove away, Basil, gazing idly after the carpentum, felt himself touched on the arm; he looked round and saw Decius, whose panting breath declared his haste, whilst his countenance was eloquent of ill.
'I come from the Anicianum,' Decius whispered, 'and bring terrible news. Petronilla lies dying of the pest.'
Dazed as if under a violent blow, Basil stretched out his hand. It touched the wall of the little temple of Janus, in the shadow of which they were standing.
'The pest?' he echoed faintly.
'She was seized in the night. Some one in the house -- some woman, they tell me, whom she brought with her a few days ago, I know not whence -- is just dead. I have sped hither in search of any one with whom I could speak of it; God be thanked that I have met you! I went to fetch away books, as you know.'
'I must go there,' said Basil, gazing about him to find his slaves. 'I must go straightway.'
'Why? The danger is great.'
'It may be' -- this was spoken into Decius' ear -- 'that Veranilda is imprisoned there. I have proof now, awful proof, that Petronilla lied to me. I must enter, and seek.'
Hard by were litters for public hire. Bidding his slaves follow, Basil had himself carried, fast as bearers could run, towards the Anicianum. Not even fear of the pestilence could withhold him. His curse upon Petronilla had been heard; the Almighty God had smitten her; would not the same Power protect him? He prayed mentally, beseeching the intercession of the Virgin, of the saints. He made a vow that, did he recover Veranilda, he would not rest until he had won her conversion to the Catholic faith.
Without the Anicianum, nothing indicated disturbance, but as soon as he had knocked at the door it was thrown wide open, and he saw, gathered in the vestibule, a crowd of dismayed servants. Two or three of them, whom he knew well, hurried forward, eager to speak. He learnt that physicians were with the sick lady, and that the presbyter of St. Cecilia, for whom she had sent in the early morning, remained by her side. No member of the family (save Decius) had yet come, though messages had been despatched to several. Unopposed, Basil entered the atrium, and there spoke with Petronilla's confidential freedman.
'Leo, your mistress is dying. Speak the truth to me, and you shall be rewarded; refuse to answer, or lie to me, and I swear by the Cross that you shall suffer. Who was the woman that died here yesterday?'
The freedman answered without hesitation, telling the same story Basil had already heard from Petronilla.
'Good. She has been buried?'
'She was carried out before dawn.'
'Tell me now, upon your salvation, is any one kept prisoner here?'
Leo, an elderly man, his eyes red with tears and his hands tremulous, gazed meaningly at the questioner.
'No one; no one,' he answered under his breath. 'I swear it to you, 0 lord Basil.'
'Come with me through the house.'
'But Leo, moving nearer, begged that he might be heard and believed. He understood the meaning of these inquiries, for he had been with his mistress at Surrentum. They whom Basil sought were not here; all search would be useless; in proof of this Leo offered the evidence of his wife, who could reveal something of moment which she had learnt only a few hours ago. The woman was called, and Basil spoke apart with her; he learnt that Petronilla, as soon as her pains began, sent a messenger to the deacon Leander, entreating him to come; but Leander had only yesterday set out on a journey, and would not be back for a week or more. Hearing this, the stricken lady fell into an anguish of mind worse even than that of the body; she uttered words signifying repentance for some ill-doing, and, after a while, said to those who were beside her -- a physician and the speaker -- that, if she died, they were to make known to Bessas that the deacon Leander, he and he alone, could tell all. Having said this, Petronilla became for a time calmer; but her sufferings increased, and suddenly she bade summon the presbyter of St. Cecilia's church. With him she spoke alone, and for a long time. Since, she had uttered no word touching worldly matters; the woman believed that she was now unconscious.
'And you swear to me,' said Basil, who quivered as he listened, 'that this is the truth and all you know?'
Leo's wife swore by everything sacred on earth, and by all the powers of heaven, that she had falsified nothing, concealed nothing. Thereupon Basil turned to go away. In the vestibule, the slaves knelt weeping before him, some with entreaties to be permitted to leave this stricken house, some imploring advice against the plague; men and women alike, all were beside themselves with terror. In this moment there came a knocking at the entrance; the porter ran to open, and admitted Gordian. Basil and he, who had not met since the day of the family gathering, spoke together in the portico. He had come, said Gordian, in the fear that Petronilla had been forsaken by all her household, as sometimes happened to those infected. Had it been so, he would have held it a duty to approach her with what solace he could. As it was, physician and priest and servants being here, he durst not risk harm to his own family; but he would hold himself in readiness, if grave occasion summoned him. So Gordian remounted his horse, and rode back home.
Basil lingered. He no longer entertained the suspicion that Veranilda might be here, but he thought that, could he speak with Petronilla herself, penitence might prompt her to tell him where the captive lay hidden. It surprised him not at all to hear Leander's name as that of her confidant in the matter, though hitherto his thought had not turned in that direction. Leander signified the Church, and what hope was there that he could gain his end against such an opponent? -- more formidable than Bessas, more powerful, perhaps, than Justinian. Were Veranilda imprisoned in some monastery, he might abandon hope of beholding her again on this side of the grave.
Yet it was something to know that she had not passed into the hands of the Greeks; that she was not journeying to the Byzantine court, there to be wedded against her will. Cheered by this, he felt an impulse of daring; he would see Petronilla.
'Leo! Lead me to the chamber.'
The freedman besought him not to be so rash, but Basil was possessed with furious resolve. He drove the servant before him, through the atrium, into a long corridor. Suddenly the silence was broken by a shriek of agony, so terrible that Basil felt his blood chilled to the very heart. This cry came again, echoing fearfully through the halls and galleries of this palace of marble. The servants had fled; Basil dropped to his knees, crossed himself, prayed, the sweat standing upon his forehead. A footstep approached him; he rose, and saw the physician who had been with Maximus at Surrentum.
'Does she still live?' he asked.
'If life it can be called. What do you here, lord Basil?'
'Can she hear and speak?'
'I understand you,' replied the physician. 'But it is useless. She has confessed to the priest, and will utter no word more. Look to yourself; the air you breathe is deadly.'
And Basil, weak as a child, suffered himself to be led away.
The library in Basil's house was a spacious, graceful room, offering at this day very much the same aspect as in the time of that ancestral Anician, who, when Aurelian ruled, first laid rolls and codices upon its shelves. Against the walls stood closed presses of wood, with bronze panelling, on which were seen in relief the portraits of poets and historians; from the key of each hung a strip of parchment, with a catalogue of the works within. Between the presses, on pedestals of dark green serpentine, ranged busts of the Greek philosophers: Zeno with his brows knitted, Epicurus bland, Aratus gazing upward, Heraclitus in tears, Democritus laughing. These were attributed to ancient artists, and by all who still cared for such things were much admired. In the middle stood a dancing faun in blood red marble, also esteemed a precious work of art. Light entered by an arched window, once glazed, now only barred with ornamental iron, too high in the wall to allow of any view; below this, serving as table, was an old marble sarcophagus carved with the Calydonian hunt.
Here, one day of spring, Decius sat over his studies. Long ago he had transferred hither all the books from the great house across the Tiber, and had made his home on the Caelian. As he read or wrote a hard cough frequently interrupted him. During the past half year his health had grown worse, and he talked at times of returning to the Surrentine villa, if perchance that sweeter air might soothe him, but in the present state of things -- Totila had just laid siege to Neapolis -- the removal did not seem feasible. Moreover, Decius loved Rome, and thought painfully of dying elsewhere than within her walls.
There was a footfall at the door, and Basil entered. He was carelessly clad, walked with head bent, and had the look of one who spends his life in wearisome idleness. Without speaking, however, he threw himself upon a couch and lay staring with vacant eye at the bronze panels of the vaulted ceiling. For some minutes silence continued; then Decius, a roll in his hand, stepped to his kinsman's side and indicated with his finger a passage of the manuscript. What Basil read might be rendered thus:
'I am hateful to myself. For though born to do something worthy of a man, I am now not only incapable of action, but even of thought.'
'Who says that?' he asked, too indolent to glance at the beginning of the roll.
'A certain Marcus Tullius, in one of his letters,' replied the other, smiling, and returned to his own couch.
Basil moved uneasily, sighed, and at length spoke in a serious tone.
'I understand you, best Decius. You are right. Many a time I have used to myself almost those very words. When I was young -- how old I feel! -- I looked forward to a life full of achievements. I felt capable of great things. But in our time, what can we do, we who are born Romans, yet have never learnt to lead an army or to govern a state?'
He let his arm fall despondently, and sank again into brooding silence.
At root, Basil's was a healthy and vigorous nature. Sound of body, he needed to put forth his physical energies, yet had never found more scope for them than in the exercise of the gymnasium, or the fatigue of travel; mentally well-balanced, he would have made an excellent administrator, such as his line had furnished in profusion, but that career was no longer open. Of Marcian's ascetic gloom he knew nothing: not all the misery he had undergone in these last six months could so warp his wholesome instincts. Owning himself, in the phrases he had repeated from childhood, a miserable sinner, a vile clot of animated dust, at heart he felt himself one with all the beautiful and joyous things that the sun illumined. With pleasure and sympathy he looked upon an ancient statue of god or hero; only a sense of duty turned his eyes upon the images of Christian art.
And this natural tendency was encouraged by his education, which, like that of all well-born Romans, even in the sixth century after Christ, had savoured much more of paganism than of Christianity. Like his ancestors, before the age of Constantine, he had been taught grammar and rhetoric; grammar which was supposed to include all sciences, meaning practically a comment on a few classical texts, and rhetoric presumed a preparation for the life of the Forum, having become an art of declamation which had no reference to realities. Attempts had been made -- the last, only a few years ago, by Cassiodorus -- to establish Christian schools in Rome, but without success, so profoundly were the ancient intellectual habits rooted in this degenerate people. The long resistance to the new religion was at an end, but Romans, even while confessing that the gods were demons, could not cast off their affection for the mythology and history of their glorious time. Thus Basil had spent his schooldays mostly in the practice of sophistic argument, and the delivery of harangues on traditional subjects. Other youths had shown greater aptitude for this kind of eloquence; he did not often carry off a prize; but among his proud recollections was a success he had achieved in the form of a rebuke to an impious voluptuary who set up a statue of Diana in the room which beheld his debauches. Here was the nemesis of a system of education which had aimed solely at the practical, the useful; having always laboured to produce the man perfectly equipped for public affairs, and nothing else whatever. Rome found herself tottering with senile steps in the same path when the Empire and the ancient world lay in ruins about her. Basil was not studious. Long ago he had forgotten his 'grammatical' learning -- except, of course, a few important matters known to all educated men, such as the fact that the alphabet was invented by Mercury, who designed the letters from figures made in their flight by the cranes of Strymon. Though so ardent a lover, he had composed no lyric or elegy in Veranilda's honour; his last poetical effort was made in his sixteenth year, when, to his own joy, and to the admiration of his friends, he wrote a distich, the verses of which read the same whether you began from the left hand or the right. Nowadays if he ever opened a book it was some historian of antiquity. Livy, by choice, who reminded him of his country's greatness, and reawakened in him the desire to live a not inglorious life.
Of his latter boyhood part had been spent at Ravenna, where his father Probus, a friend as well as kinsman of the wise minister Cassiodorus, now and then made a long sojourn; and he had thus become accustomed to the society of the more cultivated Goths, especially of those who were the intimates of the learned Queen Amalasuntha. Here, too, he learned a certain liberality in religious matters; for it was Cassiodorus who, in one of the rescripts given from the Gothic court, wrote those memorable words: 'Religious faith we have no power to impose, seeing that no man can be made to believe against his will.' Upon the murder of Amalasuntha, when the base Theodahad ruled alone, and ruin lay before the Gothic monarchy, Probus, despairing of Italy, following the example of numerous Roman nobles, migrated to Byzantium. His wife being dead, and his daughter having entered a convent, he was accompanied only by Basil, then eighteen years of age. A new world thus opened before Basil's mind; its brilliancy at first dazzled and delighted him, but very soon he perceived the difference between a noble's life at Rome or Ravenna under the mild rule of the Goths, and that led by so-called Romans in the fear of Justinian and of Theodora. His father, disappointed in hopes of preferment which had been held out to him, gladly accepted a mission which would take him back to Italy: he was one of the envoys sent to Belisarius during the siege of Ravenna, to urge the conclusion of the Gothic war and command the return of the Patricius as soon as might be for service against the Persians; and with him came Basil. On the journey Probus fell ill; he was able to cross the Adriatic, but no sooner touched Italian Soil than he breathed his last.
Then it was that Basil, representing his father in the Imperial mission, came face to face with Belisarius, and conceived a boundless enthusiasm for the great commander, whose personal qualities -- the large courtesy, the ready kindliness, the frequent laugh -- made intimate appeal to one of his disposition. He stayed in the camp before Ravenna until the city surrendered, and no one listened with more ardent approval to the suggestion which began as a whisper between Italians and Goths that Belisarius should accept the purple of the Western Empire. This, to be sure, would have been treachery, but treachery against Justinian seemed a small thing to Basil, and a thing of no moment at all when one thought of Rome as once more an Imperial city, and Italy with such a ruler as the laurelled Patricius. Treachery the general did commit, but not against Byzantium. Having made pretence of accepting the crown which the Goths offered him, he entered into Ravenna, took possession in Justinian's name, and presently sailed for the East, carrying with him the King Vitiges and his wife Matasuntha, grand-daughter of Theodoric. It was a bitter disappointment to Basil, who had imagined for himself a brilliant career under the auspices of the new Roman Emperor, and who now saw himself merely a conquered Italian, set under the authority of Byzantine governors. He had no temptation to remain in the North, for Cassiodorus was no longer here, having withdrawn a twelvemonth ago to his own country by the Ionian Sea, and there entered the monastery founded by himself; at Ravenna ruled the logothete Alexandros, soon to win a surname from his cleverness in coin-clipping. So Basil journeyed to Rome, where his kinsfolk met him with news of deaths and miseries. The city was but raising her head after the long agony of the Gothic siege. He entered his silent home on the Caelian, and began a life of dispirited idleness.
Vast was the change produced in the Roman's daily existence by the destruction of the aqueducts. The Thermae being henceforth unsupplied with water, those magnificent resorts of every class of citizen lost their attraction, and soon ceased to be frequented; for all the Roman's exercises and amusements were associated with the practice of luxurious bathing, and without that refreshment the gymnasium, the tennis-court, the lounge, no longer charmed as before. Rome became dependent upon wells and the Tiber, wretched resource compared with the never-failing and abundant streams which once poured through every region of the city and threw up fountains in all but every street. Belisarius, as soon as the Goths retreated, ordered the repairing of an aqueduct, that which served the transtiberine district, and was indispensable to the working of the Janiculan mills, where corn was ground; but, after his departure, there was neither enough energy nor sufficient sense of security in Rome for the restoration of even one of the greater conduits. Nobles and populace alike lived without the bath, grew accustomed to more or less uncleanliness, and in a certain quarter suffered worse than inconvenience from the lack of good water.
Formerly a young Roman of Basil's rank, occupied or not by any serious pursuit, would have spent several hours of the day at one or other of the Thermae still in use; if inclined to display, he would have gone thither with a train of domestic attendants, and probably of parasites; were the season hot, here he found coolness; were it cold, here he warmed himself. Society never failed; opportunity for clandestine meetings could always be found; all the business and the pleasure of a day were regulated with reference to this immemorial habit. Now, to enter the Thermae was to hear one's footsteps resound in a marble wilderness; to have statues for companions and a sense of ruin for one's solace. Basil, who thought more than the average Roman about these changes, and who could not often amuse himself with such spectacles as the theatres or the circus offered, grew something of a solitary in his habits, and was supposed by those who did not know him intimately, to pass most of his time in religious meditation, the preface, perhaps, to retirement from the world. Indolence bringing its wonted temptations, he fell into acquaintance with Heliodora, a Neapolitan Greek of uncertain origin, whose husband that year held the office of City Prefect. Acquaintance with Heliodora was, in his case, sure to be a dangerous thing, and might well prove fatal, for many and fierce were the jealousies excited by that brilliant lady, whose husband alone regarded with equanimity her amorous adventures. Happily, Basil did not take the matter very much to heart; he scarce pretended to himself that he cared whether Heliodora was his for a day only or for a month; and he had already turned his thoughts to the sweetness of Aemiliana, that young sister of Gordian, whom, if he chose, he might make his wife.
Now again had sluggishness taken possession of him, and with it came those promptings of the flesh which, but a few months ago, he easily subdued, but which the lapse of time had once more made perilous. To any who should have ventured to taunt him with forgetfulness of Veranilda, he would have fiercely given the lie; and with reason, for Veranilda's image was as vivid to him as on the day when he lost her, and she alone of women had the power to excite his deepest and tenderest emotions. Nevertheless, he had more than once of late visited Heliodora, and though these visits were in appearance only such as he might have paid to any lady of his acquaintance, Basil knew very well whither they tended. As yet Heliodora affected a total forgetfulness of the past; she talked of Veranilda, and confessed that her efforts to make any discovery regarding the captive were still fruitless, though she by no means gave up hope; therewithal, she treated Basil only half seriously, with good-naturedly mocking smiles, as a mere boy, a disdain to her mature womanhood. Of this was he thinking as he tossed on the couch in the library; he had thought of it too much since leaving Heliodora yesterday afternoon. It began to nettle him that his grief should be for her merely an amusement. Never having seen the Gothic maiden, whose beauty outshone hers as sunrise outdoes the lighting of a candle, this wanton Greek was capable of despising him in good earnest, and Basil had never been of those who sit easy under scorn. He felt something chafe and grow hot within him, and recalled the days when he, and not Heliodora, had indulged contempt -- to his mind a much more natural posture of affairs, The animal that is in every man had begun to stir; it urged him to master and crush and tame this woman, whom, indeed, he held rather in hate than in any semblance of love. Her beauty, her sensuality, had power over him still; he resented such danger of subjection, and encouraged himself in a barbarism of mood, which permitted him to think that even in yielding he might find the way of his revenge.
There had been a long silence since his reply to the hint offered by Decius. The student spoke again.
'Basil, leave Rome.'
'It is forbidden,' answered the other dully, his face averted.
'Many things are forbidden which none the less are done. Did you learn that Veranilda awaited you at Asculum, how long would it be before you set forth?'
'Not one hour, good Decius.'
'Even. so. You would pass the gates disguised as a peasant or as a woman -- no matter how. Will you do less to save all that makes life dear to an honourable man? Be gone, be gone, I entreat you.'
'To Picenum, which is not yet subject to the Goths. There gather your capable men and arm them, and send to the King Totila, offering to serve him where he will, and how he will. You know,' pursued Decius earnestly, 'that I speak this something against my conscience, but, alas! we can only choose between evils, and I think Totila is less of a tyrant than Justinian. You will not go to Constantinople, nor would I bid you, for there, assuredly, is nothing to be done worthy of a man; but you must act, or you perish. For me, a weakling and a dreamer, there is solace in the vita umbratilis; to you, it is naught. Arise, then, 0 Basil, ere it be too late.'
The listener rose from his recumbent attitude; he was stirred by this unwonted vigour in Decius, but not yet did resolve appear on his countenance.
'Did I but know,' he murmured, 'that Veranilda is not in Rome!'
Innumerable times had he said it; the thought alone held him inert. Impossible to discover, spite of all his efforts, whether Veranilda had been delivered to the Greeks, or still lay captive in some place known to the deacon Leander. From the behaviour of Bessas nothing could be certainly deduced: it was now a long time since he had sent for Basil, and Marcian, though believing that the commander's search was still futile, had no more certainty than his friend. Soon after Petronilla's death, the Anician mansion had been thoroughly pillaged and everything of value removed to the Palatine. Bessas condescended to justify this proceeding: having learnt, he said, that the question of Aurelia's orthodoxy lay in doubt, some declaring that she was a heretic, some that she had returned to orthodoxy before her father's death, he took charge of the property which might be hers until she appeared to claim it, when, having the testament of Maximus in his hand, he would see that justice was done. With Leander, Basil had succeeded in obtaining an interview, which was altogether fruitless. The deacon would answer no question, and contented himself with warning his visitor of the dangers incurred by one who openly sought to defeat the will of the Emperor.
'Is it farewell?' asked Decius, stepping towards his kinsman, who seemed about to leave the room.
'I will think.'
'Go speak with Gordian. He says that he can obtain you permission to leave the city.'
'I doubt it,' replied Basil. 'But I will see him -- ere long.'
Decius went forth for his morning's exercise, which sometimes took the form of a gentle game of ball, but was generally a ramble on foot and unaccompanied, for he never felt at ease when an attendant followed him. His habits were solitary; ever absorbed in thought, or lost in dreams, he avoided the ways where he would be likely to encounter an acquaintance, and strayed among ruins in deserted gardens, such as were easily found in the remoter parts of the Caelian. To-day, tempted on by the delicious air, and the bright but not ardent sunshine, he wandered by such unfrequented paths till a sound of voices broke upon his meditation, and he found himself in view of the Lateran. Numbers of poor people were streaming away from the open space by the Pope's palace, loud in angry talk, its purpose intelligible enough to any one who caught a few words. Decius heard maledictions upon the Holy Father, mingled with curses no less hearty upon the Greeks who held Rome.
'It was not thus,' cried an old man, 'in the time of King Theodoric, heretic though he might be. We had our bread and our hog's flesh, prime quality both, and plenty for all.'
'Ay,' cried a woman, 'and our oil too. Since these Greek dogs came, not a drop of oil has there been in my cruse. Heretics, forsooth! What better is the Holy Father who lets Christians die of hunger while he eats and drinks his fill?'
'Evil go with thee, 0 Vigilius! The pest seize thee, 0 Vigilius! May'st thou perish eternally, 0 Vigilius!' shrilled and shouted all manner of voices, while fists were shaken towards the pontifical abode.
Decius hastened away. The sight of suffering was painful to him, and the cries of the vulgar offended his ear; he felt indignant that these people should not be fed, as Rome for so many ages had fed her multitude, but above all, he dreaded uproar, confusion, violence. His hurried pace did not relax until he was lost again amid a wilderness of ruins, where browsing goats and darting lizards were the only life.
Later in the day, when he sat alone in the peristyle, a visitor was introduced, whom he rose to welcome cordially and respectfully. This was a man of some threescore years, vigorous in frame, with dry, wrinkled visage and a thin, grey beard that fell to his girdle. As he approached, Decius saw that he was bleeding from a wound on the head and that his cloak was torn.
'What means this, dear master?' he exclaimed. 'What has befallen you?'
'Nothing worth your notice, gentle Decius,' the philosopher replied, calmly and gravely. 'Let us rather examine this rare treatise of Plotinus, which by good fortune I yesterday discovered among rubbish thrown aside.'
'Nay,' insisted Decius, 'but your wound must be washed and dressed; it may else prove dangerous. I fear this was no accident?'
'If you must know,' answered the other with good-natured peevishness, 'I am accused of magic. The honest folk who are my neighbours, prompted, I think it likely, by a certain senator who takes it ill that his son is my disciple, have shown me of late more attention than I care for, and to-day as I came forth, they pursued me with cries of "Sorcerer!" and the like, whereupon followed sticks and stones, and other such popular arguments. It is no matter. Plotinus begins ----'
Simplicius was one of the last philosophers who taught in Athens, one of the seven who were driven forth when Justinian, in his zeal for Christianity, closed the schools. Guided by a rumour that supreme wisdom was to be found in Persia, the sages journeyed to that kingdom, where disappointment awaited them. After long wanderings and many hardships, Simplicius came to Rome, and now had sojourned here for a year or two, teaching such few as in these days gave any thought to philosophy. Poor, and perhaps unduly proud, he preferred his own very humble lodging to the hospitality which more than one friend had offered him; and his open disregard for religious practices, together with singularities of life and demeanour, sufficiently explained the trouble that had come upon him. Charges of sorcery were not uncommon in Rome at this time. Some few years ago a commission of senators had sat in judgment upon two nobles accused of magic, a leading article of proof against one of them being that he had a horse which, when stroked, gave off sparks of fire. On this account Decius was much troubled by the philosopher's story. When the wound had been attended to, he besought Simplicius not to go forth again to-day, and with some difficulty prevailed.
'Why should it perturb you, 0 most excellent Decius,' said the sage, 'that a lover of wisdom is an offence to the untaught and the foolish? Was it not ever thus? If philosophy may no longer find peace at Athens, is it likely that she will be suffered to dwell at ease in Rome?'
'Alas, no!' admitted Decius. 'But why, dear master, should you invite the attacks of the ignorant?'
'I do no such thing. I live and act as seems good to me, that is all. Should no one have the courage to do that, what hope would there be, 0 Decius, for that most glorious liberty, the liberty of the mind?'
The listener bent his head abashed. Then Simplicius began to read from the manuscript, and Decius, who knew Greek fairly well -- he had lately completed certain translations from Plato, left unfinished by Boethius -- gave reverent attention. At a certain point the philosopher paused to comment, for the subject was difficult -- nothing less than the nature of God. In God, according to the system here expounded, there are three principles or hypostases, united but unequal -- the One, the Intelligence, the Soul; which correspond, respectively, to the God of Plato, the God of Aristotle, the God of Zeno. Usually curt and rather dry in his utterances, Simplicius rose to a fervid eloquence as he expounded this mysticism of Alexandria. Not that he accepted it as the final truth, it was merely a step, though an important one, towards that entire and absolute knowledge of which he believed that a glimpse had been vouchsafed to him, even to him, in his more sublime hours. As for Decius, the utmost effort never enabled him to attain familiarity with these profound speculations: he was soon lost, and found his brain whirling with words that had little or no significance. At home in literature, in philosophy he did but strive and falter and lose himself. When at length there came a silence, he sighed deeply, his hand propping his forehead.
'Master, how few men can ever know God!'
'Few, few,' admitted the philosopher, his gaze upwards.
'I think I should be content,' said Decius, 'to love and praise Him. Yet that meseems is no less hard.'
'No less,' was the reply. 'For, without knowledge, love and praise are vain.'
But Decius' thought had another meaning.
It was the Paschal season, and Basil, careless at most times of religious observances, did not neglect this supreme solemnity of his faith. On Passion Day he fasted and received the Eucharist, Decius doing the like, though with a half-smiling dreaminess which contrasted with the other's troubled devotion. Since the death of Petronilla, Basil had known moments of awe-stricken wonder or of gloomy fear such as never before had visited him; for he entertained no doubt that his imprecation had brought upon Petronilla her dreadful doom, and this was a thought which had power to break his rest. Neither to Marcian nor to Decius did he speak of it in plain terms, merely hinting his belief that the cruel and treacherous woman had provoked divine anger.
But the inclination to piety which resulted from such brooding was in some measure counteracted by his hostile feeling towards all the Church. Petronilla might have conceived the thought of imprisoning Aurelia and Veranilda, but only with the aid of an influential cleric such as Leander could she have carried it out so successfully. The Church it was that held Veranilda captive; unless, indeed, it had handed her over to the Greeks. This conviction made his heart burn with wrath, which he could scarce subdue even whilst worshipping the crucified Christ. His victim's heresy would of course be Leander's excuse for what he had done; the daughter of Maximus and the Gothic maiden were held in restraint for their souls' good. Not long after Petronilla's death Basil had been driven by his distress of mind to visit Gordian and Silvia, and to speak with them of this suspicion. He saw that, for all their human kindness, they were disposed rather, to approve than condemn the deacon's supposed action, and he had gone forth from them in scarce concealed bitterness.
Now, in the festival days of Easter, his thoughts again turned to that house on the Clivus Scauri, so near to his own dwelling, yet so remote from the world of turbid passions in which his lot was cast. The household of Gordian seemed untouched by common cares; though thoroughly human its domestic life, it had something of the calm, the silence, of a monastery. None entered save those whom husband and wife held in affection or in respect; idle gaiety was unknown beneath their roof, and worldly ambition had no part in their counsels. Because of the reverence these things inspired in him, and because of his longing to speak with a pure-hearted woman who held him in kindness, Basil again presented himself at his kinsman's door. He was led directly to an inner room, where sat Silvia.
The severe fasts of Lent had left their mark upon the young face, yet it was fresh and smooth in its delicate pallor, and almost maidenly in its gentle smile. Silvia had blue eyes, and hair of the chestnut hue; a simple, white fillet lay above her forehead; her robe was of pale russet, adorned with the usual purple stripes and edged with embroidery; on each hand she wore but one ring. When the visitor entered, she was nursing her child, a boy of four years old, named Gregorius, but at once she put him to sit upon a little stool beside her.
'Welcome, dear cousin Basil,' was her greeting. 'We hoped this time of gladness would turn your thoughts to us. My husband has been called forth; but you will await his return?'
'It was you, lady cousin, whom I wished to see,' Basil replied. As he spoke, he touched the curly head of the boy, who looked up at him with large, grave eyes. 'Why is he so pale?'
'He has had a sickness,' answered the mother, in a low, tender voice. 'Not many days ago, one might have feared he would be taken from us. Our prayers prevailed, thanks to the intercession of the holy Cosma and Damian, and of the blessed Theodore. When he seemed to be dying, I bore him to the church in the Velabrum, and laid him before the altar; and scarcely had I finished my prayer, when a light seemed to shine upon his face, and he knew me again, and smiled at me.'
Listening, the child took his mother's hand, and pressed it against his wan little cheek. Then Silvia rang a bell that was beside her, and a woman came to take the child away, he, as he walked in silence from the room, looking back and smiling wistfully.
'I know not,' pursued Silvia, when they were alone, 'how we dare to pray for any young life in times so dark as ours. But that we are selfish in our human love, we should rather thank the Omnipotent when it pleases Him to call one of these little ones, whom Christ blessed, from a world against which His wrath is so manifestly kindled. And yet,' she added, 'it must be right that we should entreat for a life in danger; who can know to what it may be destined? -- what service it may render to God and man? One night when I watched by Gregorius, weariness overcame me, and in a short slumber I dreamt. That dream I shall never forget. It kept me in heart and hope through the worst.'
'May I hear your dream?' asked Basil.
'Nay,' was the gentle reply, with a smile and a shake of the head, 'to you it would seem but foolishness. Let us speak of other things, and first of yourself. You, too, are pale, good cousin. What have you to tell me? What has come to pass since I saw you?'
With difficulty Basil found words to utter the thought which had led him hither. He came to it by a roundabout way, and Silvia presently understood: he was indirectly begging her to use her influence with eminent churchmen at Rome, to discover whether Veranilda was yet detained in Italy, or had been sent to the East. At their previous interview he had kept up the pretence of being chiefly interested in the fate of Aurelia, barely mentioning the Gothic maiden; but that was in the presence of Gordian. Now he spoke not of Aurelia at all, and so dwelt on Veranilda's name that his implied confession could not be misunderstood. And Silvia listened with head bent, interested, secretly moved, at heart troubled.
'What you ask,' she began, after a short silence, 'is not easy. If I make inquiries of such of the clergy as I know, I must needs tell them why I am doing so; and would they, in that case, think it well to answer me?'
'You know the deacon Leander,' urged Basil. 'Can you not plead for me with him, 0 Silvia?'
'Plead for you? Remember that it is impossible for me to assume that the holy deacon knows anything of this matter. And, were that difficulty removed, dare I plead for your union with one who is not of our faith -- one, moreover, whom you cannot wed without putting yourself in grave peril?'
'Listen, gentle cousin!' exclaimed Basil eagerly. 'It may be that Veranilda has already renounced the heresy of Anus. If not, she would assuredly do so at my persuasion. So, that objection you may dismiss. As for the danger to which our marriage might expose us, our love would dare that -- ay, and things much worse.'
'You speak so confidently of the Gothic maiden?' said Silvia, with a look half-timid, half-amused. 'Was there, then, a veritable plighting of troth between you?'
'There was, dear cousin. From you I will conceal nothing, for you are good, you are compassionate.'
And whilst he poured forth the story of his love, not without tears, Silvia gave sympathetic attention. The lady Petronilla had never been one of her intimates, nor was the deacon Leander among those ecclesiastics whom she most reverenced. When Basil had told all, her reply was ready. All she could do would be to endeavour to learn whether Veranilda remained in the charge of Petronilla's confederate, or had been given up to the Greeks. From conversation she had heard, Silvia inclined to this belief, that Bessas and his subordinates were still vainly seeking.
'I can make you no promise, good Basil; but I will take counsel with my husband (whom you can trust as you trust me), and see if indeed anything may be learnt.'
The lover kissed her hands in ardent gratitude. Whilst they were still talking confidentially, another visitor was announced, the deacon Pelagius. Basil begged permission to withdraw before the cleric entered; he was in no mood for conversation with deacons; and Silvia pointed smilingly to the door by which he could retreat.
The hour was still early. Basil passed a day of hopefulness, and his mood became exultant when, about sunset, a letter was brought to him from Silvia.
'To-morrow morning, at the third hour,' she wrote, 'certain of our kinsfolk and friends will assemble in this house to hear the reverend man Arator read his poem on the Acts of the Holy Apostles. This is an honour done to us, for only two or three persons have as yet heard portions of the poem, which will soon be read publicly in the church of the Holy Petrus ad Vincula. Let me welcome your Amiability among my guests. After the reading, I shall beg you to be acquainted with one who may perchance serve you.'
Scarcely had Basil read this, when another missive was put into his hands. It was from Heliodora, and written, as usual, in Greek characters.
'To-morrow, after the ninth hour, you are bidden hither. Come if you choose. If you do not, I shall have forgotten something I have learnt.'
To this he paid little heed; it might have significance, it might have none. If the morning sustained his hope, he would be able to resist the temptation of the afternoon. So he cherished Silvia's letter, and flung Heliodora's contemptuously aside.
Reaching Gordian's house next morning a little before the appointed hour, he found the members of the family and one or two guests assembled in a circular room, with a dome pierced to admit light: marble seats, covered with cushions, rose amphitheatre-wise on one half of the circle, and opposite was a chair for the reader. In this hall Sidonius Apollinaris had declaimed his panegyric on the Emperor Avitus; here the noble Boethius had been heard, and, in earlier days, the poet Claudian. Beside Silvia stood her husband's two sisters, Tarsilla and Aemiliana, both of whom, it had begun to be rumoured, though still in the flower of their youth, desired to enter the monastic life. At the younger, who was beautiful, Basil glanced diffidently, remembering that she might have been his wife; but Aemiliana knew nothing of the thought her brother had entertained, and her eyes were calm as those of a little child. When other guests appeared, Basil drew aside, for most of the persons who entered were strangers to him. Ecclesiastics grew numerous; among them might be distinguished a tall, meagre, bald-headed man, the sub-deacon Arator, who held in his hand the manuscript from which he was to read. Among the latest to arrive was a lady, stricken in years and bowed with much grief, upon whom all eyes were respectfully bent as Gordian conducted her to a place of honour. This was Rusticiana, the daughter of Symmachus, the widow of Boethius. When Basil looked at her, and thought of the anguish through which her life had passed in that gloomy evening of the reign of Theodoric, he felt himself for a moment at one with those who rejected and scorned the Gothic dominion. A great unhappiness flooded his heart and mind; he forgot what was passing about him, and only returned to himself when there sounded the voice of the reader.
Arator's poetic version of the Acts of the Apostles was written in hexameters; whether good or ill, Basil felt unable to decide, and he wished Decius had been here to whisper a critical comment. In any case he would have found the reading wearisome; that monotonous, indistinct voice soon irritated him, and at length made him drowsy. But admiration frequently broke out from the audience, and at the end applause became enthusiasm. Unspeakably glad that the ceremony was over, Basil mingled with the moving crowd, and drew towards Silvia. At length their eyes met; the lady thereupon spoke a word to a cleric who was standing by her, and in the next moment summoned Basil with a movement of the head. There was a brief formality, then Basil found himself led aside by the deacon Pelagius, who spoke to him in a grave, kind voice very pleasant to the ear, with the courtesy of a finished man of the world, and at the same time with a firmness of note, a directness of purpose, which did not fail to impress the listener.
Aged about five-and-thirty, bearing upon his countenance the signature of noble birth, Pelagius was at this moment the most accomplished diplomat that the Church of Rome possessed. He had spent some years at Byzantium, as papal emissary; had engaged the confidence of Justinian; and, on his return, had brought an Imperial invitation to Vigilius, who was requested to set forth for the East as soon as possible. Pope Vigilius had the misfortune to differ on certain dogmatic questions with that pious and acute theologian the Empress Theodora; being a man of little energy or courage, he durst not defy Byzantium, as he gladly would have done, nor yet knew how to deal subtly for his own ends with the Eastern despots; he lingered his departure, and in the meantime earned hatred at Rome because of his inability to feed the populace. It was already decided that, during his absence, the Holy Father should be represented by Pelagius, an arrangement very agreeable to that party in the Church which upheld Imperial supremacy, but less so to those ecclesiastics -- a majority -- who desired the independence of Rome in religious matters, and the recognition of Peter's successor as Patriarch of Christendom. In speaking to such a personage as this on Basil's behalf, Silvia had not reflected that the friend of Justinian was little likely to take the part of one who desired to frustrate an Imperial command; she thought only of his great influence, and of the fact that he looked with no favour on the deacon Leander, an anti-imperialist. What was again unfortunate for Basil, Pelagius had heard, before leaving Byzantium, of the Emperor's wish to discover Veranilda, and had already made inquiries on this subject in Rome. He was glad, then, to speak with this young noble, whose mind he found it very easy to read, and whom, without the least harshness, he resolved to deter from his pursuit of a Gothic bride.
The colloquy was not long. Buoyed by his ardour, Basil interpreted the first words of courteous preamble in the most hopeful sense. What followed gave him pause; he saw a shadow of obstacle arise. Another moment, and the obstacle had become very real; it grew to vastness, to insuperability He stood, as it were, looking into the very eyes of the Serene Majesty of Byzantium. Not that the speaker used a tone of peremptory discouragement. Granting the indispensable condition that Veranilda became a Catholic, it was not an impossible thing, said Pelagius, that Basil should obtain her as a wife; but it could only be by the grace of the Emperor. Veranilda had been summoned to Byzantium. If Basil chose to follow her thither, and sue for her before the throne, why, this was open to him, as to any other Roman of noble birth. It would have been idle indeed to seek to learn from Pelagius whether Veranilda had already left Italy, his tone was that of omniscience, but his brow altogether forbade interrogation. Basil, in despair, ventured one inquiry. If he desired to go to Byzantium, could he obtain leave of departure from the Greek commandant, under whose ban he lay? The reply was unhesitating; at any moment, permission could be granted. Therewith the conversation came to an end, and Basil, hating the face of man, stole away into solitude.
Entering his own house, he learnt that Marcian was within. For a month they had not seen each other, Marcian having been absent on missions of the wonted double tenor; they met affectionately as ever, then Basil flung himself down, like one crushed by sudden calamity.
'What now?' asked his friend, with a rallying rather than a sympathetic air.
'No matter,' Basil replied. 'You are weary of my troubles, and I can no longer talk of them.'
'What troubles? The old story still? I thought you had found solace?'
Basil looked an indignant wonder. His friend, sitting on the couch beside him, continued in the same half-bantering tone:
'When were you last at the house of a certain disconsolate widow, on the Quirinal?'
'What mean you?' cried the other, starting up, with sudden fury in his eyes. 'Are you vowed with my enemies to drive me mad?'
'Not I, dear Basil; but hear the truth. Only late last night I entered the gates of Rome, and since I rose this morning three several persons have spoken your name to me together with that of Heliodora.'
'They are black and villainous liars! And you, Marcian, so ready to believe them? Tell me their names, their names!'
'Peace! One would think you mad indeed. You know the son of Opilio, young Vivian?'
'I know him!' answered Basil scornfully, 'as I know the lousy beggar who sits before St. Clement's Church, or the African who tumbles in Trajan's forum.'
'Even so. This same spark of fashion stops me in the Vicus Longus. "You are the friend of Basil," quoth he. "Give him this warning. If ever I chance to find him near the portico of Heliodora, I will drive my dagger into his heart," and on he struts, leaving me so amazed that I forgot even to fetch the cub a box o' the ear. But I had not long to wait for an explanation of his insolence. Whom should I next meet but the solemn-visaged Opilio. "So your friend Basil," he began, "has forgotten his Gothic love?" We talked, and I learnt from him that you were the hot rival of Vivian for Heliodora's favour. Nay, I do but repeat what you ought to hear. Can such gossip begin without cause? Tell me now, how often have you been yonder since I left Rome?'
Basil could scarce contain himself. He had visited Heliodora, yes, but merely because he would neglect no chance of learning where Veranilda was imprisoned; it was not impossible that through this woman such a secret might be discovered. He the rival of that debauched boy! He the lover of Heliodora! Had he sunk so low in the esteem of his best friend? Why, then, it was time indeed to be gone: befall him what might, he could not be unhappier in Constantinople than here in Rome.
At these words, Marcian checked him with a surprised inquiry. What had turned his thoughts to Constantinople? Basil related the events of yesterday and of this morning.
'What other counsel could you have expected from Pelagius?' said Marcian, after listening attentively. 'But on one point I can reassure you. Veranilda has not yet fallen into the hands of the Greeks.'
'How do you know that?' exclaimed Basil eagerly.
'Enough that I do know it. Whilst you have been idling here -- forgive me, good Basil -- I have travelled far and conversed with many men. And I have something else to tell you, which will perchance fall less agreeably upon your ear. The fame of Veranilda promises to go forth over all lands. King Totila himself has heard of her, and would fain behold this ornament of his race.'
'When Cumae was besieged by the Goths three months ago, Chorsoman -- whom you have not forgotten -- made terms with Totila, and was allowed to keep some portion of the plunder he had amassed. Thinking to do the king a pleasure, he told him of Veranilda, of the commands regarding her which had come from the East, and of her vanishing no one knew whither. And of these things, 0 Basil, did Totila himself, with his royal mouth, speak unto me not many days gone by.'
'I see not how that concerns me,' said Basil wearily.
'True, it may not. Yet, if I were wooing a wife, I had rather seek her at the hands of Totila than at those of Justinian. To be sure, I did not speak of you to the king; that would have been less than discreet. But Totila will ere long be lord of all Italy, and who knows but the deacon Leander, no friend of Constantinople, might see his interest and his satisfaction in yielding Veranilda rather to the Goth than to the Greek?'
Basil started. Such a thought had never entered his mind, yet he saw probability in the suggestion.
'You assure me,' he said, 'that she has not yet been surrendered. I find that hard to believe. Knowing in whose power she is, how comes it that Bessas does not seize the insolent Leander, and force the truth from him? Were I the commander, would I be baffled for an hour by that sleek deacon?'
'Were you commander, 0 best Basil,' replied Marcian, smiling, 'you would see things in another light. Bessas does not lay hands upon the deacon because it is much more to his profit to have the clergy of Rome for his friends than for his enemies. Whether Veranilda be discovered or not, he cares little; I began to suspect that when I saw that you came off so easily from your dealings with him. 'Tis a long road to Constantinople, and the Thracian well knows that he may perchance never travel it again. His one care is to heap up treasure for to-day; the morrow may look after itself. But let us return to the point from which we started. Do you think in earnest of voyaging to the Bosporus?'
'I should only choose a hazard so desperate were it the sole chance that remained of recovering Veranilda.'
'Wait, then, yet awhile. But take my counsel, and do not wait in Rome.'
To this advice Basil gave willing ear. Since he had heard from Pelagius that he was free to quit the city, he was all but resolved to be gone. One thought alone detained him; he still imagined that Heliodora might have means such as she professed of aiding him in his search, and that, no matter how, he might subdue her will to his own. She, of course, aimed only at enslaving him, and he knew her capable of any wickedness in the pursuit of her ends; for this very reason was he tempted into the conflict with her, a conflict in which his passions would have no small part, and whether for or against him could not be foreseen. Once more he would visit Heliodora; if fruitlessly, then for the last time.
But of this decision he did not speak to Marcian.
At the hour named by Heliodora, Basil set forth alone and rode by unfrequented ways towards the street on the Quirinal named Alta Semita. A sense of shame forbade him to make known even to his slaves whither he was going. He kept repeating to himself that it was for the last time; and perhaps a nobler motive would have withheld him altogether, had not the story told by Marcian of his 'rival's' insolent menace rankled in him and urged him to show that he felt no fear. Chance led him past the little church of St. Agatha, which belonged to the Arians; it helped him to fix his thoughts upon Veranilda, and silently he swore that no temptation should prevail against the fidelity due to his beloved.
Not far from the Thermae of Constantine, and over against that long-ruined sanctuary of ancient Rome, the Temple of Quirinus, he drew rein at a great house with a semicircular portico of Carystian columns, before which stood a bronze bull, the ornament of a fountain now waterless; on either side of the doorway was a Molossian hound in marble. A carriage and a litter waiting here showed that Heliodora had visitors. This caused Basil to hesitate for a moment but he decided to enter none the less. At his knock he was at once admitted, and a slave was sent to look after his horse.
Few houses in Rome contained so many fine works of ancient sculpture as this, for its master had been distinguished by his love of such things in a time when few cared for them. Some he had purchased at a great price; more than one masterpiece he had saved from oblivion amid ruins, or from the common fate of destruction in a lime-kiln. Well for him had he been content to pass his latter years with the cold creations of the sculptor; but he turned his eyes upon consummate beauty in flesh and blood, and this, the last of his purchases, proved the costliest of all.
The atrium was richly adorned. A colossal bust of Berenice faced the great head of an Amazon, whilst numerous statues, busts, and vases stood between the pillars; mosaics on the floor represented hunting scenes, the excellence of the work no less than its worn condition showing it to be of a time long gone by. Following his conductor, Basil passed along a corridor, and into a peristyle with a double colonnade. In the midst of a little garden, planted with flowering shrubs, rose the statue which its late owner had most prized, an admirable copy of the Aphrodite of Cnidos; it stood upon a pedestal of black basalt and was protected by a light canopy with slender columns in all but transparent alabaster. Round about it were marble seats, and here, shielded from the sun by little silken awnings, sat Heliodora and her guests. At once Basil became aware of the young Vivian, whose boyish form (he was but some eighteen years old) lounged among cushions on the seat nearest to Heliodora, his eyes fixed upon her beauty in a languishing gaze, which, as soon as he beheld the new comer, flashed into fierceness. The others were two women, young and comely, whose extravagant costume and the attitudes in which they reclined proved them suitable companions of the lady of the house. Whilst yet at some distance, Basil had heard a feminine voice rising to shrillness, and as he approached the group he found a discussion going on which threatened to become more than vivacious. The shrill speaker he had met here before, who she was, he knew not, save that she bore the name of Muscula.
'You -- you -- you!' this lady was exclaiming contemptuously. 'You say this, and you say that! Mother of God! What do you know about racing? When were you last in the circus at Constantinople? At eight years old you once told me. You have a good memory if you can remember as far back as that!'
She shrieked a laugh, which no one else joined in. Heliodora, to whom the speech was addressed, affected to smile as in lofty tolerance of infantine pettishness. At this moment Basil stepped up to her, and kissed her hand; As though for contrast with Muscula's utterance, she greeted him in the softest tone her voice could compass, inviting him with a gesture to take a place at her side, or rather at her feet, for she was reclining on a long couch. Heliodora's robe was of hyacinth blue, broidered in silver thread with elaborate designs. Bracelets, chains, and rings shone about her in the wonted profusion. Above the flat coils of her hair lay a little bunch of grapes between two vine leaves, wrought in gold, and at her waist hung a dagger, the silver sheath chased with forms of animals. Standing behind her the little Anglian slave Laetus gently fanned her with a peacock's tail, or sprinkled her with perfume from a vial; the air was heavy with Sabaean odours.
'Ah, here is lord Basil!' pursued Muscula with a mischievous glance at Vivian. 'He has lived at Constantinople lately -- not thirty or forty years ago. Tell us, sweet lord' -- she bent towards him with large, rolling eyes -- 'was it not Helladius who won for the Greens when Thomas the Blue was overturned and killed?'
'For all I know it may have been,' replied Basil carelessly; he had scarce heard the question.
'I swear you are wrong, Muscula,' put in the third lady. 'The lord Basil cares naught for such things, and would not contradict you lest you should scratch his face -- so dangerous you look, much more like a cat than a mouse. By the beard of Holy Peter! should not Heliodora know, who, though she is too young to remember it herself, has heard of it many a time from her father. You think too much of yourself, 0 Muscula, since you ate crumbs from the hands of Bessas.'
The boy Vivian gave a loud laugh, rolling on his cushions.
'0 witty Galla!' he exclaimed. 'Crumbs from the hand of Bessas. Say on, say on; I love your spicy wit, 0 Galla! Cannot you find something sharp, for the most grave, the most virtuous Basil?'
'Hold your saucy tongue, child,' said Heliodora with a pouting smile. 'But it is true that Muscula has won advancement. One doesn't need to have a very long memory to recall her arrival in Rome. There are who say that she came as suckling nurse in a lady's train, with the promise of marriage to a freedman when her mistress's baby was weaned. That is malice, of course; poor Muscula has had many enemies. For my part, I have never doubted that she was suckling her own child, nor that its father was a man of honourable name, and not a slave of the Circus stables as some said.'
Again Vivian rolled on the cushions in mirth, until he caught Basil's eye as it glanced at him with infinite scorn. Then he started to a sitting posture, fingered the handle of his dagger, and glared at Heliodora's neighbour with all the insolent ferocity of which his face was capable. This youth was the son of a man whose name sounded ill to any Roman patriot, -- of that Opilio, who, having advanced to high rank under King Theodoric, was guilty of frauds, fell from his eminence, and, in hope of regaining the king's favour, forged evidence of treachery against Boethius. His attire followed the latest model from Byzantium: a loose, long-sleeved tunic, descending to the feet, its hue a dark yellow, and over that a long mantle of white silk, held together upon one shoulder by a great silver buckle in the form of a running horse; silken shoes, gold embroidered, with leather soles dyed purple; and on each wrist a bracelet. His black hair was short, and crisped into multitudinous curls with a narrow band of gold pressing it from the forehead to the ears.
'Oh, look at little Vivian!' cried Muscula. 'He has the eyes of an angry rat. What vexes him? Is it because he saw Basil touch Heliodora's slipper?'
'If I had!' sputtered the boy. 'By the devil, if I had!'
'Oh, he affrights me!' went on the mocking woman. 'Heliodora, stroke his curls, and give him a kiss, I beseech you. Who knows what dreadful thing may happen else?'
'I have had enough of this,' said Gall a, rising with a careless laugh. 'Your house has been intolerable, most dear Heliodora, since you made friends with Muscula. Why you did, I'm sure I don't know; but for my part I take a respectful leave, noble lady, until I hear that this mouse of the Palatine has ceased to amuse you with its pretty pranks. May I never be saved if she is fit company for women who respect themselves.'
'Why such hurry, 0 chaste Galla!' exclaimed Muscula. 'Is your husband at home for once? I can answer for it he is not there very often; the wiser man he.'
'Slap her face, Galla,' cried Vivian. 'At her! She will run before you.'
Galla moved as if to act upon this advice, but the voice of Heliodora, peremptory, resonant, checked her step.
'None of that! Get you gone, both of you, and try conclusions if you will in the open street. Off! Pack! By the Virgin Mother, if you linger I will have you flung out of doors.'
In her amazement and indignation, Galla rose to the tips of her feet.
'This to me!' she screamed. 'To me, the only woman of noble birth and honest life who still remained your friend! Wanton! witch! poisoner!'
Basil sprang up and walked aside, overcome with shame at the scene enacted before him, and fearing it would end in ignoble violence. He heard Muscula's shriek of laughter, a shout of anger from Vivian, and the continued railing of Galla; then, ere he had taken a dozen steps, a hand touched him, and Heliodora's voice sounded low at his ear.
'You are right, dear Basil. Only an accident prevented me from being alone at your hour. Forgive me. We will go apart from these base-tongued creatures.'
But almost in the same moment sounded another voice, that of Muscula, who had sprung after them.
'Sweet lord Basil,' she murmured at his ear, 'a moment's patience, for I have that to say which is worth your hearing.'
Heliodora stepped aside. Pale with fury, she held herself in an attitude of contemptuous indifference.
'Speak and have done!' exclaimed Basil harshly.
'But a word, Illustrious. I know well why you are here. Not for this woman's painted cheeks and essence-soaked hair: you had enough of that long ago. You come because she pretends to know a secret which concerns you nearly. It was to discover this secret that she sought friendship with me. But do not imagine, sweet lord, that I tell all I know to Heliodora. I have played with her curiosity and fooled her. From me she has learnt nothing true. Even if she desired to tell you the truth -- and be sure she does not -- she could only mislead you.'
Basil was standing between the two women, his eyes on the ground. Had he watched Heliodora at this moment, he would have understood the sudden start with which Muscula sprang nearer to him as if for protection.
'I alone,' she continued, in a voice not so subdued but that Heliodora could hear every word. 'I alone can discover for you what you wish to know. Give yourself no more trouble in suing to a woman of whom you are weary -- a woman evil and dangerous as a serpent. When you choose to seek me, dear lord, I will befriend you. Till that day, fare you well, and beware of other things than the silver-hilted dagger -- which she would draw upon me did she dare. But she knows that I too have my little bosom friend --' she touched her waist -- 'though it does not glitter before every eye.'
Therewith Muscula turned and tripped off, looking back to laugh aloud before she disappeared in the corridor. Galla was already gone, half persuaded, half threatened away by Vivian, who now stood with knitted brows glaring at Basil.
'I must get rid of this boy,' said Heliodora to her companion. 'In a moment we shall be alone.'
Basil was held from taking curt leave only by Vivian's insolent eyes; when Heliodora moved, he stepped slowly after her.
'Your company is precious, dear Vivian,' he heard her say, 'but you must not spoil me with too much of it. Why did you not go away with Galla, whose wit so charms you, and whose husband is so complaisant? There, kiss my little finger, and say good-bye.'
'That shall be when it pleases me,' was Vivian's reply. 'To-day I have a mind to sup with you, Heliodora. Let that intruder know it; or I will do so myself.'
Heliodora had the air of humouring a jest. Putting forth a hand, she caught the stripling's ear and pinched it shrewdly.
'Little lord,' she said, 'you take too large a liberty.'
Whereto Vivian replied with a pleasantry so broad and so significant that Heliodora's cheek fired; for she saw that Basil stood within hearing.
'Nay, I must be brief with you, young monkey!' she exclaimed. 'Away! When I am at leisure for your tricks I will send for you. Be off!'
'And leave you with that . . .?' cried the other, using a villainous word.
Hereupon Basil addressed him.
'Whether you stay or go, foul mouth, is naught to me. I am myself in haste to be gone, but I will not leave you without a lesson by which, perchance, you may profit.'
As he uttered the last word, he dealt Vivian such a buffet on the side of the head with his open hand that the youngster staggered. The result of this, Basil had well foreseen; he stood watchful, and in an instant, as a dagger gleamed before his eyes, grasped the descending arm that wielded it. Vivian struggled furiously, but was overcome by the other's strength. Flung violently to the ground, his head struck against the edge of a marble seat, and he lay senseless.
Heliodora looked on with the eyes with which she had often followed a fight between man and beast in the amphitheatre. Pride, and something more, lit up her countenance as she turned to Basil.
'Brave generous!' she exclaimed, her hands clasped against her bosom. 'Not even to draw your dagger! Noble Basil!'
'Have him looked to,' was the reply; 'and console him as you choose. Lady, I bid you farewell.'
For a moment Heliodora stood as though she would let him thus depart. Basil was nearing the entrance to the corridor, when she sprang after him. Her arms were about his neck; her body clung against his; she breathed hotly into his eyes as she panted forth words, Latin, Greek, all burning with shameless desire. But Basil was not thus to be subdued. The things that he had heard and seen, and now at last the hand-to-hand conflict, had put far from him all temptation of the flesh; his senses were cold as the marbles round about him. This woman, who had never been anything to him but a lure and a peril, whom he had regarded with the contempt natural in one of his birth towards all but a very few of her sex, now disgusted him. He freed himself from her embrace with little ceremony.
'Have I deceived you?' he asked. 'Have I pretended to come here for anything but my own purpose, which you pretended to serve?'
Heliodora stood in a strange attitude, her arms thrown back, her body leaning forward -- much like some fierce and beautiful animal watching the moment to spring.
'Do you believe what that harlot said?' she asked in a thick voice.
'Enough of it to understand my folly in hoping to learn anything through you. Let us part, and think of each other no more.'
She caught his arm and put her face close to his.
'Leave me thus, and your life shall pay for it.'
Basil laughed scornfully.
'That cockerel,' he replied, pointing to Vivian, who was just stirring, 'sent me a message this morning, that if I valued my life I should not come here. I heed your threat no more than his.'
They looked into each other's eyes, and Heliodora, deep read in the looks of men, knew that her desire was frustrate.
'Go then,' she said. 'Go quickly, lest the boy pursue you His second aim might be surer.'
Basil deigned no reply. He went into the vestibule, waited there until his horse was brought up, and rode away.
His head bent, scarce noting the way he took, he found himself at the entrance to Trajan's Forum. Here he checked his horse, and seemed to be contemplating that scene which for centuries had excited the wonder and the awe of men. But when he rode on over the grass-grown pavement, he was as little observant of the arches, statues, galleries, and of that great column soaring between Basilica and Temple, as of the people who moved hither and thither, sparse, diminutive. Still brooding, he came into the Via Lata and to the house of Marcian.
Marcian, said the porter, was closeted with certain visitors.
'Make known to him,' said Basil, 'that I would speak but a word in private.'
They met in the atrium. Marcian smiled oddly.
'If you come to tell me what you have heard this afternoon,' he whispered, 'spare your breath. I know it already.'
'How can that be?'
'I have seen an angry woman. Angry women are always either very mischievous or very useful. In this case I hope to make use of her. But I can tell you nothing yet, and I would that you were far from Rome. Could I but persuade you to be gone, dear Basil.'
'I need no more persuading,' replied the other, with sudden resolve. 'If it be true that I am free to leave the city, I go hence to-morrow.'
Marcian's face lighted up.
'To Asculum, then?'
'Since here I have no hope. Can I trust you, Marcian?' he added, grasping his friend's hand.
'As yourself -- nay, better.'
'Then, to Asculum.'
The greater part of southern Italy was once more held by the Goths. Whilst the long blockade of Neapolis went on, Totila found time to subdue all that lay between that city and the Ionian Sea, meeting, indeed, with little resistance among the country-folk, or from the inhabitants of the mostly unwalled towns. The Imperial forces which should have been arrayed against him had wintered in various cities of the north, where their leaders found all they at present cared for, repose and plunder; their pay long in arrear, and hardly to be hoped for, the Greek soldiers grew insubordinate, lived as they would or could, and with the coming of spring deserted in numbers to the victorious enemy. Appeals to Byzantium for reinforcements had as yet resulted only in the sending of a small, ill-equipped fleet, which, after much delay in Sicilian ports, sailed for Neapolis, only to be surprised by a storm, and utterly wrecked on the shores of the great bay. Not long after the news of this disaster, it was reported in Rome that Neapolis, hopeless of relief, had opened her gates, and presently the report had strange confirmation. There arrived by the Appian Way officers of the garrison which had surrendered; not as harassed fugitives, but travelling with all convenience and security, the Gothic king himself having expedited their journey and sent guides with them lest they should miss the road. Nor was this the most wonderful of the things they had to relate. For they told of humanity on the part of the barbarian conqueror such as had no parallel in any story of warfare known to Greek or Roman; how the Neapolitans being so famine-stricken that they could scarce stand on their legs, King Totila would not at once send plentiful stores into the town, lest the sufferers should die of surfeit, but ministered to their needs even as a friendly physician would have done, giving them at first little food, and more as their strength revived. To be sure, there were partisans of the Empire in Rome who scoffed at those who narrated, and those who believed, a story so incredible. On the Palatine, it was at first received with roars of laughter, in which the lady Muscula's shrill voice had its part. When confirmation had put the thing beyond dispute, Bessas and his supporters made a standing joke of it; if any one fell sick their word was: 'Send for the learned Totila'; and when there was talk of a siege of Rome, they declared that their greatest fear, should the city fall, was of being dieted and physicked by the victor.
Romans there were, however, who heard all this in another spirit. The ill-fed populace had long ago become ready for any change which might benefit their stomachs, and the name of Totila was to them significant of all they lacked under the Greeks. 'Let the Goth come quickly!' passed from mouth to mouth wherever the vulgar durst speak what they thought. Among the nobles, prejudice of race and religion and immemorial pride ensured predominance to the Imperialists, but even here a Gothic party existed, and imprudent utterances had brought certain senators into suspicion. The most active friend of Totila, however, was one whom Bessas never thought of suspecting, having, as he thought, such evidence of the man's devotion to the Greek cause. Marcian had played his double part with extraordinary skill and with boldness which dared every risk. He was now exerting himself in manifold ways, subtly, persistently, for the supreme achievement of his intrigue, the delivery of Rome from Byzantine tyranny.
Among the many persons whom he made to serve his ends without admitting them to his confidence was Galla, the wife of a noble whom Amalasuntha had employed in her secret communications with Byzantium, and who was now one of the intimates of Bessas. A light woman, living as she pleased because of her husband's indifference, Galla knew and cared nothing about affairs of state, and on that account was the more useful to Marcian. She believed him in love with her, and he encouraged the belief; flattering her with pretence at timidity, as though he would fain have spoken but durst not. Regarding him as her slave, Galla amused herself by sometimes coming to his house, where, as if in the pride of chastity, she received his devotion, and meanwhile told him things he was glad to know. And thus it happened on that day of the quarrel between Heliodora and Muscula, wherein Galla unexpectedly found herself involved. Bubbling over with wrath against Heliodora, she at once sought out Marcian, acquainted him with all that had happened, and made evident her desire to be in some way avenged. Marcian saw in this trivial affair the opportunity for a scheme of the gravest import; difficult, perilous, perhaps impracticable, but so tempting in its possibilities that he soon resolved to hazard everything on the chance of success. Basil's departure from Rome, which he had desired for other reasons, fell pat for the device now shaping itself in his mind. A day or two after, early in the morning, he went to Heliodora's house, and sent in a message begging private speech with the lady. As he had expected, he was received forthwith, Heliodora being aware of his friendship with Basil. Between her and Marcian the acquaintance was but slight; he had hitherto regarded her as unserviceable, because too dangerous. It was because of her dangerous qualities that he now sought her, and his courage grew as the conversation became intimate.
He began with a confession. Head hanging, visage gloomy, in slow, indirect, abashed language, he let it be understood that though truly Basil's friend, he had all along been secretly doing his utmost to frustrate the lover's search for the Gothic maiden Veranilda, and, as part of this purpose, had striven to turn Basil's thoughts to Heliodora. That he had had no better success grieved him to the heart. All who wished Basil well, desired that he should marry a lady of his own rank, his own religion, and could he but have won a wife such as Heliodora!
'Alas!' sighed Marcian, 'it was too much to hope. How could you be other than cold to him? Had you deigned, thrice gracious lady, to set your beauty, your gifts, in contest with his memory of that other!'
In every man that approached her, Heliodora suspected a selfish aim, but it was seldom that she talked with one whose subtlety seemed the equal of her own. The little she knew of Marcian had predisposed her to regard him as a cold and melancholy nature, quite uninteresting; she eyed him now with her keenest scrutiny, puzzled by his story, vainly seeking its significance.
'Your friend complained to you of my coldness?' she said distantly.
'He scarce spoke of you. I knew too well with what hope he came here. When he found it vain, he turned away in bitterness.'
This sounded like truth to one who knew Basil. After a moment's reflection, Heliodora made another inquiry, and in a tone of less indifference.
'Why, lord Marcian, do you come to tell me this? Basil has quitted Rome. You can scarce ask me to pursue him.'
'Lady,' was the sad reply, 'I will not even yet abandon hope. But this is not the moment to plead his cause with you, and indeed I came with a thought more selfish.'
Ready to believe whatever might be uttered with such preface, Heliodora smiled and bade the speaker continue. Again Marcian's head drooped; again his words became hesitant, vague. But their purpose at length grew unmistakable; unhappy that he was, he himself loved Veranilda, and the vehemence of his passion overcame his loyalty in friendship; never whilst he lived should Basil wed the Gothic maiden. This revelation astonished Heliodora; she inquired when and how Marcian had become enamoured, and heard in reply a detailed narrative, part truth, part false, of the events at Surrentum, known to her as yet only in outline and without any mention of Marcian's part in them. Upon her surprise followed malicious joy. Was there no means, she asked, of discovering Veranilda? And the other in a low voice made answer that he knew where she was -- knew but too well.
'I shall not ask you to tell me the secret,' said Heliodora, with a smile.
'Gracious lady,' pursued Marcian, 'it is for the purpose of revealing it to you that I am here. Veranilda is in the palace, held in guard by Bessas till she can have escort to Constantinople.'
'Ha! You are sure of that?'
'I have it on testimony that cannot be doubted.'
'Why then,' exclaimed Heliodora, all but betraying her exultation in the thought, 'there is little chance that Basil's love will prosper.'
'Little chance, dear lady, I hope and believe, but I have confessed to you that I speak as a self-seeker and a faithless friend. It is not enough that Basil may not wed her; I would fain have her for myself.'
The listener laughed. She began to think this man something of a simpleton.
'Why, my excellent Marcian, I will give you all my sympathy and wish you good fortune. But that any one may do. What more do you expect of me?'
Marcian looked towards the open doorway. They were seated in a luxurious little room, lighted from the peristyle, its adornments in sculpture a sleeping Hermaphrodite and a drunken satyr; on the wall were certain marble low-reliefs, that behind Heliodora representing Hylas drawn down by the Naiads.
'Speak without fear,' she reassured him. 'In this house, believe me, no one dare play the eavesdropper.'
'I have to speak,' said Marcian, bending forward, 'of things perilous -- a life hanging on every word. Only to one of whose magnanimity I felt assured should I venture to disclose my thought. You have heard,' he proceeded after a pause, 'and, yet I am perchance wrong in supposing that such idle talk could reach your ears, let me make known to you then, that with Bessas in the palace dwells a fair woman (or so they say, for I have not seen her) named Muscula. She is said to have much power with the commander.'
The listener's countenance had darkened. Regarding Marcian with haughty coldness, she asked him how this could concern her. He, in appearance dismayed, falteringly entreated her pardon.
'Be not angered, 0 noble Heliodora! I did not presume to think that you yourself had any acquaintance with this woman. I wished to make known to you things that I have heard of her -- things which I doubt not are true. But, as it is only in my own interest that I speak, I will say no more until I have your permission.'
This having been disdainfully granted, Marcian proceeded with seeming timid boldness, marking in his listener's eyes the eager interest with which she followed him. Though every detail of the story was of his own invention, its plausibility had power upon one whose passions inclined her to believe it. He told then that Muscula, bribed by Basil, was secretly endeavouring to procure the release of Veranilda, which should be made to appear an escape of Basil's contriving. The lover's visits to Heliodora, he said, and his supposed ignorance as to where Veranilda was detained, were part of the plot. Already Muscula had so far wrought upon Bessas that success seemed within view, and Basil's departure from Rome was only a pretence; he waited near at hand, ready to carry off his beloved.
'How come you to know all this?' Heliodora asked bluntly at the first pause.
'That also I will tell you,' answered Marcian. 'It is through some one whom Muscula holds of more account than Bessas, and with whom she schemes against him.'
'By the Holy' Mother!' exclaimed Heliodora, 'that is yourself.'
Marcian shook his head.
'Not so, gracious lady.'
'Nay, why should you scruple to confess it? You love Veranilda, and do you think I could not pardon an intrigue which lay on your way to her?'
'Nevertheless it is not I,' persisted the other gravely.
'Be it so,' said Heliodora. 'And in all this, my good Marcian, what part have I? How does it regard me? What do you seek of me?'
Once more the man seemed overcome with confusion.
'Indeed I scarce know,' he murmured. 'I hardly dare to think what was in my mind when I sought you. I came to you, 0 Heliodora, as to one before whom men bow, one whose beauty is resistless, whose wish is a command. What gave me courage was a word that fell from Bessas himself when I sat at table with him yesterday. "Wore I the purple," he said, "Heliodora should be my Empress."'
'Bessas said that?'
'He did -- and in the presence of Muscula, who heard it, I am bound to say, with a sour visage.'
Heliodora threw back her head and laughed. 'I think he has scarce seen me thrice,' fell from her musingly. 'Tell him from me,' she added, 'that it is indiscreet to talk of wearing the purple before those who may report his words.'
There was a silence. Marcian appeared to brood, and Heliodora did her best to read his face. If, she asked herself; he had told her falsehoods, to what end had he contrived them? Nothing that she could conjecture was for a moment satisfying. If he told the truth, what an opportunity were here for revenge on Muscula, and for the frustration of Basil's desire.
How that revenge was to be wrought, or, putting it the other way, how Marcian was to be helped, she saw as yet only in glimpses of ruthless purpose. Of Bessas she did not think as of a man easy to subdue or to cajole; his soldierly rudeness, the common gossip of his inconstancy in love, and his well-known avarice, were not things likely to touch her imagination, nor had she ever desired to number him in the circle of her admirers. That it might be in her power to do what Marcian besought, she was very willing to persuade herself, but the undertaking had such colour of danger that she wished for more assurance of the truth of what she had heard.
'It seems to me,' she said at length, 'that the hour is of the latest. What if Veranilda escape this very day?'
'Some days must of necessity pass,' answered Marcian. 'The plot is not so far advanced.'
He rose hurriedly as if distracted by painful thoughts.
'Noble lady, forgive me for thus urging you with my foolish sorrows. You see how nearly I am distraught. If by any means you could aid me, were it only so far as to withhold her I love from the arms of Basil ----'
So deep was Heliodora sunk in her thoughts that she allowed Marcian to leave her without another word. He, having carried his machination thus far, could only await the issue, counting securely on Heliodora's passions and her ruthlessness. He had but taken the first step towards the end for which he schemed; were this successful, with the result that Heliodora used her charms upon the Greek commander, and, as might well happen, obtained power over him, he could then proceed to the next stage of his plot, which had a scope far beyond the loves of Basil and Veranilda. That the Gothic maiden was really in the hands of Bessas he did not believe; moreover, time had soothed his jealousy of Basil, and, had he been able to further his friend's desire, he would now willingly have done so; but he scrupled not to incur all manner of risks, for himself and others, in pursuit of a great design. Marcian's convulsive piety, like the religion of most men in his day, regarded only the salvation of his soul from eternal torment, nor did he ever dream that this would be imperilled by the treacheries in which his life was now inured.
Only a few hours after his departure, Heliodora, by means familiar to her, had learnt that Marcian's confidential servant was a man named Sagaris, a conceited and talkative fellow, given to boasting of his light loves. Before sunset, Sagaris had received a mysterious message, bidding him repair that night to a certain place of public resort upon the Quirinal. He did so, was met by the same messenger, and bidden wait under a portico. Before long there approached through the darkness a muffled figure, followed by two attendants with lanterns; the Syrian heard his name whispered; a light touch drew him further away from the lantern-bearing slaves, and a woman's voice, low, caressing, began to utter endearments and reproaches. Not to-night, it said, should he know who she was; she could speak a name which would make his heart beat; but he should not hear it until he had abandoned the unworthy woman whose arts had won him. 'What woman?' asked Sagaris in astonishment. And the answer was whispered, 'Muscula.'
Now Muscula's name and position were well known to the Syrian. The reproach of the mysterious fair one made him swell with pride; he affected inability to deny the charge, and in the next breath declared that Muscula was but his sport, that in truth he cared nothing for her, he did but love her as he had loved women numberless, not only in Rome, but in Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople. The muffled lady gave a deep sigh. Ah! and so it would be with her, were she weak enough to yield to her passion. Sagaris began to protest, to vow.
'It is vain,' replied the amorous voice. 'Only in one way can you convince me and win me.'
'Let me hear that Muscula is dead.'
Sagaris stood mute. A hand touched his shoulder, his hair; perfumes loaded the air about him.
'Tell me your name and it shall be done.'
The warm mouth breathed against his cheek and a name was murmured.
The second day after this saw an event in the Palatine which was matter of talk for some two days more, and then passed into oblivion. Rumour said that Muscula had been detected plotting against the life of Bessas, that she had been. examined under torture, found guilty, and executed. Certain gossips pretended that there was no plot at all, but that Bessas, weary of his mistress, had chosen this way of getting rid of her. Be that as it might, Muscula was dead.
For most of his knowledge of private things that happened on the Palatine -- and little that went on in the household of Bessas escaped him -- Marcian depended upon his servant Sagaris. Exorbitant vanity and vagrant loves made the Syrian rather a dangerous agent; but it was largely owing to these weaknesses that he proved so serviceable. His master had hitherto found him faithful, and no one could have worked more cunningly and persistently when set to play the spy or worm for secrets. Notwithstanding all his efforts, this man failed to discover whether Veranilda had indeed passed into the guardianship of Bessas; good reason in Marcian's view for believing that she was still detained by Leander, and probably in some convent. But a rumour sprang up among those who still took interest in the matter that some one writing from Sicily professed to have seen the Gothic maiden on board a vessel which touched there on its way to the East. This came to the ears of Marcian on the day after his conversation with Heliodora. Whether it were true or not he cared little, but he was disturbed by its having become subject of talk at this moment, for Heliodora could not fail to hear the story.
The death of Muscula set him quivering with expectancy. That it resulted from his plotting he could not be assured. Sagaris, who wore a more than usually self-important air when speaking of the event, had all manner of inconsistent reports on his tongue Not many days passed before Marcian received a letter, worded like an ordinary invitation, summoning him to the house on the Quirinal.
He went at the third hour of the morning, and was this time led upstairs to a long and wide gallery, which at one side looked down upon the garden in the rear of the house, and at the other offered a view over a great part of Rome. Here was an aviary, constructed of fine lattice work in wood, over-trailed with creeping plants, large enough to allow of Heliodora's entering and walking about among the multitude of birds imprisoned. At this amusement Marcian found her. Upon her head perched a little songster; on her shoulder nestled a dove; two fledglings in the palm of her hand opened their beaks for food. Since her last visit a bird had died, and Heliodora's eyes were still moist from the tears she had shed over it.
'You do not love birds,' she said, after gazing fixedly at Marcian a moment through the trellis.
'I never thought,' was the reply, 'whether I loved them or not.'
'I had rather give my love to them than to any of mankind. They repay it better.'
She came forth, carefully closed the wicket behind her, and began to pace in the gallery as though she were alone. Presently she stood to gaze over the city spread before her, and her eyes rested upon the one vast building -- so it seemed -- which covered the Palatine Hill.
He drew near. Without looking at him, her eyes still on the distance, she said in an unimpassioned voice:
'Did you lie to me, or were you yourself deceived?'
'Lady, I know not of what you speak.'
'You know well.' Her dark eyes flashed a glance of rebuke, and turned scornfully away again. 'But it matters nothing. I sent for you to ask what more you have to say.'
Marcian affected surprise and embarrassment.
'It was my hope, gracious lady, that some good news awaited me on your lips. What can I say more than you have already heard from me?'
'Be it so,' was the careless reply. 'I have nothing to tell you except that Veranilda is not there.' She pointed towards the palace. 'And this I have no doubt you know.'
'Believe me, 0 Heliodora,' he exclaimed earnestly, 'I did not. I was perhaps misled by ----'
Her eyes checked him.
'By one who seemed to speak with honesty and assurance.'
'Let us say, then, that you were misled; whether deceived or not, concerns only yourself. And so, lord Marcian, having done what I can for you, though it be little, I entreat your kind remembrance, and God keep you.'
Her manner had changed to formal courtesy, and, with this dismissal, she moved away again. Marcian stood watching her for a moment, then turned to look at the wide prospect. A minute or two passed; he heard Heliodora's step approaching.
'What keeps you here?' she asked coldly.
'Lady, I am thinking.'
'Of the day soon to come when Totila will be king in Rome.'
Heliodora's countenance relaxed in a smile.
'Yet you had nothing more to say to me,' she murmured in a significant tone.
'There were much to say, Heliodora, to one whom I knew my friend. I had dared to think you so.'
'What proof of friendship does your Amiability ask?' inquired the lady with a half-mocking, half-earnest look.
As if murmuring to himself, Marcian uttered the name 'Veranilda.'
'They say she is far on the way to Constantinople,' said Heliodora. 'If so, and if Bessas sent her, his craft is greater than I thought. For I have spoken with him, and' -- she smiled -- 'he seems sincere when he denied all knowledge of the maiden.'
Marcian still gazed at the distance. Again he spoke as if unconsciously murmuring his thoughts:
'Totila advances. In Campania but a few towns still await his conquest. The Appian Way is open. Ere summer be past he will stand at the gates of Rome.'
'Rome is not easily taken,' let fall the listener, also speaking as though absently.
'It is more easily surrendered,' was the reply.
'What! You suspect Bessas of treachery?'
'We know him indolent and neglectful of duty. Does he not live here at his ease, getting into his own hands, little by little, all the wealth of the Romans, careless of what befall if only he may glut his avarice? He will hold the city as long as may be, only because the city is his possession. He is obstinate, bull-headed. Yet if one were found who could persuade him that the cause of the Greeks is hopeless -- that, by holding out to the end, he will merely lose all, whereas, if he came to terms ----'
Marcian was watching Heliodora's face. He paused. Their eyes met for an instant.
'Who can be assured,' asked Heliodora thoughtfully, 'that Totila will triumph? They say the Patricius will come again.'
'Too late. Not even Belisarius can undo the work of Alexandros and these devouring captains. From end to end of Italy, the name of the Greeks is abhorred; that of Totila is held in honour. He will renew the kingdom of Theodoric.'
Marcian saw straight before him the aim of all his intrigue. It was an aim unselfish, patriotic. Though peril of the gravest lay in every word he uttered, not this made him tremble, but the fear lest he had miscalculated, counting too securely on his power to excite this woman's imagination. For as yet her eye did not kindle. It might be that she distrusted herself, having learnt already that Bessas was no easy conquest. Or it might be that he himself was the subject of her distrust.
'What is it to you?' she suddenly asked, with a fierce gaze. 'Can the Goth bring Veranilda back to Italy?'
'I do not believe that she has gone.'
Marcian had knowledge enough of women, and of Heliodora, to harp on a personal desire rather than hint at high motive. But he was impelled by the turmoil of his fears and hopes to excite passions larger than jealousy. Throwing off all restraint, he spoke with hot eloquence of all that might be gained by one who could persuade the Greek commander to open the gates of Rome. Totila was renowned for his generosity, and desired above all things to reconcile, rather than subdue, the Roman people; scarce any reward would seem to him too great for service such as helped this end.
'Bessas lies before you. Ply your spells; make of him your creature; then whisper in his ear such promise of infinite gold as will make his liver melt. For him the baser guerdon; for you, 0 Heliodora, all the wishes of your noble heart, with power, power, power and glory unspeakable!'
Heliodora pondered. Then, without raising her head, she asked quietly:
'You speak for the King?'
'For the King,' was answered in like tone.
'Come to me again, Marcian, when I have had time for thought.'
With that they parted. On the same day, Sagaris was bidden as before to a meeting after nightfall, and again he conversed with a lady whose face was concealed from him. She began with a gentle reproof, for he had ventured to present himself at her door, and to beg audience. Let him be patient; his hour would come, but it must be when she chose. Many questions did she put to him, all seeming to be prompted by interest in the Gothic maiden of whom Sagaris had heard so much. With the simplicity of inordinate conceit, he assured her that here she had no ground for jealousy; Veranilda he had never beheld. Softly she corrected his error; her interest in the maiden was a friendly one. Only let him discover for her where Veranilda was concealed. Sagaris was led to avow that in this very search he and his master had been vainly occupied for many a day; it had carried them, he declared in a whisper, even to the camp of King Totila. With this the questioner appeared to be satisfied, and the Syrian was soon dismissed, promises in a caressing voice his sole reward.
When Marcian next held speech with Heliodora -- it was after some days -- she bore herself more openly. In the course of their talk, he learnt that she had consulted an astrologer, and with results wholly favourable to his design. Not only had this man foretold to her that Totila was destined to reign gloriously over the Italians for many years, but he saw in Heliodora's own fate a mysterious link with that of the triumphant king; her, under the Gothic conquest, great things awaited. 'Do,' was his counsel, 'that which thou hast in mind.' Hearing all this, Marcian's heart leaped with joy. He urged her to pursue their end with all the speed that prudence permitted. For his own part, he would make known to Totila as soon as might be the hope of his friends in Rome.
Again some days passed, and Marcian received one of those messages which at times reached him from the Gothic king. Totila's bidding was contained in a few words: Let Marcian seek speech with the deacon Leander. Surprised, but having full confidence in the messenger, Marcian presently wrote to the deacon in brief terms, saying that he wished to converse with him regarding a certain heretic of whom he had hopes. To this came prompt reply, which did not, however, invite Marcian, as he had expected, to a meeting in private; but merely said that, on the morrow, an hour after sunrise, Leander would be found in a certain public place.
Leander was busied just now in a matter peculiarly con. genial to him, the destruction of an ancient building in order to enrich with its columns and precious marbles a new Christian church. At the hour appointed, Marcian found him in the temple of Minerva Chalcidica, directing workmen as to what they should remove; before him lay certain mouldings in green porphyry (the precious lapis Lacedaemonius), which had been carefully broken from their places, and he was regarding them with the eye of a lover. For the first few minutes of their conversation, Marcian felt mistrust, as the deacon appeared to have no intelligence of any secret purpose in this meeting; but presently, still gossiping of stones, Leander led him out of the temple and walked in the shadowy public place beside the Pantheon.
'That must be purified and consecrated,' he remarked, glancing from the granite columns of Agrippa's porch to the bronze-tiled dome. 'Too long it has been left to the demons.'
Marcian, preoccupied as he was, listened with awe. Since the ravage of the Vandals, no mortal had passed those vast doors, behind which all the gods of heathendom, known now for devils, lurked in retreat.
'I have urged it upon the Holy Father,' Leander added. 'But Vigilius is all absorbed in the dogmatics of Byzantium. A frown of the Empress Theodora is more to him than the glory of the Omnipotent and the weal of Christendom.'
The look which accompanied these words was the first hint to Marcian that he might speak in confidence. He inquired whether the Pope, as was reported, would shortly sail for Constantinople.
'Before another week has passed,' was the reply, 'he will embark. He would fain go forth' -- a malicious smile was in the corner of Leander's eye -- 'without leave-taking of his beloved people but that can scarce be permitted.'
'Ere he return,' said Marcian, 'things of moment may happen.'
Again the deacon smiled. Seeing on the steps of the Pantheon a couple of idlers playing at flash-finger, they turned aside to be out of earshot.
'We are agreed, it seems,' remarked Leander quickly, 'that there is hope of the heretic. You had news of him yesterday? I, also. It may be in my power to render him some service -- presently, presently. Meanwhile, what can you tell me of the lost maiden about whom there has been so much talk? Is it true that Bessas has sent her to the East?'
Marcian turned his eyes upon the speaker's face, and regarded him fixedly with a half smile. For a moment the deacon appeared to be unconscious of this; then he met the familiar look, averted his head again, and said in the same tone as before:
'The heretic, I learn, would gladly see her.'
'It would be as well, I think,' was the reply, 'if his wish were gratified.'
'Ah? But how would that please a friend of yours, dear lord?' asked Leander, with unaffected interest.
Marcian's answer was in a tone of entire sincerity, very unlike that he had used when speaking on this subject with Heliodora.
'It might please him well or ill. The King' -- he lowered his voice a little -- 'would see with gladness this beautiful maiden of his own people, sprung too from the royal blood, and would look with favour upon those who delivered her in safety to him. Should he make her his queen, and I believe she is worthy of that, the greater his gratitude to those who prevented her marriage with a Roman. If, on the other hand, he found that she could not forget her first lover, Totila is large-hearted enough to yield her up in all honour, and politic enough to see advantage in her union with the heir of the Anician house. Between these things, Basil must take his chance. Had he carried off his love, he would have wedded her in disregard of every danger; and so long as it was only the Greeks that sought her, I should have done my best to aid and to protect him. It is different now. Basil I hold dearer than any friend; his place is in my very heart, and his happiness is dearer to me than my own; but I cannot help him to frustrate a desire of Totila. The King is noble; to serve him is to promote the w~ of Italy, for which he fights, and in which name he will conquer.'
The deacon had paused in his walk. He looked thoughtfully about him. At this moment there came along the street an ox-drawn wagon, on which lay the marble statue of a deity; Leander stepped up to it, examined the marble, spoke with the men who were conveying it, and returned to Marcian with a shake of the head.
'It pains me to see such carven beauty burnt to lime. And yet how many thousands of her worshippers are now burning in Gehenna. Lord Marcian,' he resumed, 'you have spoken earnestly and well, and have given me good proof of your sincerity. I think with you, and willingly would work with you.'
'Reverend, does no opportunity present itself?'
'In this moment, none that I can see,' was the suave answer.
'Yet I perceive that you have made some offer of service to the King.'
'It is true; and perchance you shall hear more of it. Be not impatient; great things are not hastily achieved.'
With sundry other such remarks, so uttered that their triteness seemed to become the maturity of wisdom, Leander brought the colloquy to an end. It was his principle to trust no man unless he were assured of a motive strong enough to make him trustworthy, and that motive he had not yet discovered in Marcian. Nor, indeed, was he entirely sure of himself; for though he had gone so far as to communicate with the Gothic king, it was only in view of possibilities whose issue he still awaited. If the Pope set forth for Constantinople, he would leave as representative in Rome the deacon Pelagius, and from this brother cleric Leander had already received certain glances, which were not to be misunderstood. The moment might shortly come when he would need a friend more powerful than any he had within the city.
But Vigilius lingered, and Leander, save in his influence with the irresolute Pontiff, postponed the step he had in view.
Rome waited. It had been thought that the fall of Neapolis would be followed by Totila's swift march along the Appian Way; but three months had passed, and the Gothic king was but little nearer to the city. He seemed resolved to leave nothing behind him that had not yielded to his arms; slowly and surely his rule was being established over all the South. Through the heats of summer, with pestilence still lurking in her palaces and her dens, no fountain plashing where the sun blazed on Forum and on street, Rome waited.
In June Bessas was joined by another of the Greek commanders, Joannes, famed for his ferocity, and nicknamed the Devourer. A show of activity in the garrison resulted from this arrival; soldiers were set to work upon parts of the city wall which needed strengthening; the Romans began to make ready for a siege; and some, remembering the horrors of a few years ago, took to flight. There was much talk of a conspiracy to open the gates to Totila; one or two senators were imprisoned, and a few Arian priests who still dwelt in Rome were sentenced to banishment. But when, after a few weeks, Joannes and his troop marched northward, commotion ceased; Bessas fell back into the life of indolent rapacity, work on the walls was soon neglected, and Rome found that she had still only to wait.
About this time Marcian fell sick. He had suffered much from disappointment of high hopes, neither Heliodora nor Leander aiding his schemes as he expected. The constant danger in which he lived tried his fortitude to the utmost, and at length he began to burn with fever. Agonies came upon him, for even the slightest disorder in these plague-stricken times filled men with fear. And whilst he lay thus wretched, his servants scarce daring to attend upon him -- Sagaris refused to enter his chamber, and held himself ready for flight (with all he could lay hands on) as soon as the physician should have uttered the fatal word -- whilst his brain was confused and his soul shaken with even worse than the wonted terrors, there came to visit him the deacon Pelagius. That the visit happened at this moment was mere chance, but Pelagius, hearing of Marcian's condition, felt that he could not have come more opportunely. A courageous man, strong in body as in mind, he was not to be alarmed by mere talk of the pest; bidding the porter conduct him, he came to Marcian's bedside, and there sat for half an hour. When he went away, his handsome countenance wore a smile of thoughtful satisfaction.
As though this conversation had relieved him, the sick man at once began to mend. But with his recovery came another torment. Lying in fear of death and hell, he had opened his soul to Pelagius, and had revealed secrets upon which depended all he cared for in this world. Not only he himself was ruined, but the lives of those he had betrayed were in jeopardy. That suspicion was busy with him he knew; the keen-sighted deacon had once already held long talk with him, whereupon followed troublesome interrogation by Bessas, who had since regarded him with somewhat a sullen eye. How would Pelagius use the knowledge he had gained? Even when quite recovered from the fever, Marcian did not venture to go forth, lest an enemy should be waiting for him without. In his weak, dejected and humbled state he thought of the peace of a monastery, and passed most of his time in prayer.
But when a few days had passed without event, and increasing strength enabled him to think less brain-sickly, he began to ask whether he himself had not peradventure been betrayed It was a long time since he had seen Heliodora, who appeared to be making no effort for the conquest of the Greek commander; had she merely failed, and lost courage, or did the change in her mean treachery? To trust Heliodora was to take a fool's risk; even a little wound to her vanity might suffice to turn her against him. At their last meeting she had sat with furrowed brows, brooding as if over some wrong, and when he urged her for an explanation of her mood, she was first petulant, then fiery, so that he took umbrage and left her. Happily she knew none of his graver secrets, much though she had tried to discover them. Were she traitorous, she could betray him alone.
But he, in the wreck of his manhood, had uttered many names besides hers -- that of Basil, from whom he had recently heard news, that of the politic Leander, those of several nobles engaged in the Gothic cause. Scarcely could he believe that he had been guilty of such baseness; he would fain have persuaded himself that it was but a memory of delirium. He cursed the subtlety of Pelagius, which had led him on till everything was uttered. Pelagius, the bosom friend of Justinian, would know how to deal with plotters against the Empire. Why had he not already struck? What cunning held his hand?
Unable at length to sit in idleness, he tried to ease his conscience by sending a warning to Basil, using for this purpose the trustworthy slave who, in many disguises, was wont to travel with his secret messages. This man wore false hair so well fixed upon his head that it could not attract attention; the letter he had to deliver was laid beneath an artificial scalp.
'Be on your guard,' thus Marcian wrote. 'Some one has made known to the Greeks that you are arming men, and for what purpose. Delay no longer than you must in joining the King. In him is your only hope, if hope there still can be. I, too, shall soon be in the camp.'
These last words were for his friend's encouragement. As soon as the letter had been despatched, he went forth about Rome in his usual way, spoke with many persons, and returned home unscathed. Plainly, then, he was to be left at liberty yet awhile; Pelagius had purposes to serve. Next day, he betook himself to the Palatine; Bessas received him with bluff friendliness, joked about his escape from death (for every one believed that he had had the plague), and showed no sign of the mistrust which had marked their last meeting. In gossip with certain Romans who were wont to hang about the commander, flattering and fawning upon him for their base advantage, he learnt that no one had yet succeeded to the place left vacant by the hapless Muscula; only in casual amours, generally of the ignoblest, did Bessas bestow his affections. Of Heliodora there was no talk.
Another day he passed in sauntering; nothing that he could perceive in those with whom he talked gave hint of menace to his safety. Then, early the next morning, he turned his steps to the Quirinal. As usual, he was straightway admitted to Heliodora's house, but had to wait awhile until the lady could receive him. Gloomily thoughtful, standing with eyes fixed upon those of the great bust of Berenice, he was startled by a sudden cry from within the house, the hoarse yell of a man in agony; it was repeated, and became a long shriek, rising and falling in terrible undulation. He had stepped forward to seek an explanation, when Heliodora's eunuch smilingly came to meet him.
'What is that?' asked Marcian, his nerves a-quiver.
'The noble lady has ordered a slave to be punished,' was the cheerful reply.
'What is his fault?'
'Illustrious, I know not,' answered the eunuch more gravely.
The fearful sounds still continuing, Marcian turned as though to hurry away; but the eunuch, following, implored him not to go, for his departure would but increase Heliodora's wrath. So for a few more minutes he endured the horror of that unbroken yell. When it ceased, he could hear his heart beating.
Summoned at length to the lady's presence, he found her lying in the chamber of the Hermaphrodite. A strange odour floated in the air, overcoming that of wonted perfumes.
faint with a sudden nausea, Marcian performed no courtesy, but stood regarding the living woman much as he had gazed at the face in marble, absent and sombre-browed.
'What now?' were Heliodora's first words, her smile fading in displeasure.
'Must we needs converse in your torture-chamber?' asked Marcian.
'Are your senses more delicate than mine?'
'It seems so. I could wish I had chosen another hour for visiting you.'
'It was well chosen,' said Heliodora, regarding him fixedly. 'This slave I have chastised, shall I tell you of what he was guilty? He has a blabbing tongue.'
'I see not how that concerns me,' was his cold reply, as he met her look with steady indifference.
From her lounging attitude Heliodora changed suddenly to one in which, whilst seated, she bent forward as though about to spring at him.
'How comes it that Bessas knows every word that has passed between us?' broke fiercely from her lips.
In an instant Marcian commanded himself, shrugged his shoulders, and laughed.
'That is a question,' he said, 'to put to your astrologer, your oneirocritic, your genethliac. I profess not to read mysteries.'
'Liar!' she shot out. 'How could he have had it but from your own lips?'
Marcian betook himself to his utmost dissimulation, and the talk of the next few minutes -- on his part, deliberately provocative; on hers, recklessly vehement -- instructed him in much that he had desired to learn. It was made clear to him that a long combat of wills and desires had been in progress between the crafty courtesan and the half wily and the half brutal soldier, with a baffling of Heliodora's devices which would never have come to his knowledge but for this outbreak of rage. How far the woman had gone in her lures, whether she had played her last stake, he could not even now determine; but he suspected that only such supreme defeat could account for the fury in which he beheld her. Bessas, having (as was evident) heard the secret from Pelagius, might perchance have played the part of a lover vanquished by his passions, and then, after winning his end by pretence of treachery to the Emperor, had broken into scoffing revelation. That were a triumph after the Thracian's heart. Having read thus far in the past, Marcian had to turn anxious thought upon the future, for his position of seeming security could not long continue. He bent himself to allay the wrath he had excited. Falling of a sudden into a show of profound distress, he kept silence for a little, then murmured bitterly:
'I see what has happened. When the fever was upon me, my mind wandered, and I talked.'
So convincing was the face, the tone, so plausible the explanation, that Heliodora drew slowly back, her fury all but quenched. She questioned him as to the likely betrayer, and the name of Sagaris having been mentioned, used the opportunity to learn what she could concerning the man.
'I cannot promise to give him up to you to be tortured,' said Marcian, with his characteristic smile of irony.
'That I do not ask. But,' she added significantly, 'will you send him here, and let me use gentler ways of discovering what I can?'
And when Marcian went away, he reflected that all was not yet lost. For Heliodora still had faith in the prophecy of her astrologer; she was more resolute than ever in her resolve to triumph over Bessas; she could gain nothing to this end by helping her confederate's ruin. Before parting, they had agreed that Marcian would do well to affect ignorance of the discovery Bessas had made; time and events must instruct them as to the projects of their enemies, and guide their own course.
That same day, he despatched the Syrian with a letter to Heliodora, and on the man's return spoke with him as if carelessly of his commission. He remarked that the face of Sagaris shone as though exultantly, but no indiscreet word dropped from the vaunter's lips. A useful fellow, murmured Marcian within himself, and smiled contempt.
Another day or two of indecision, then in obedience to an impulse he could no longer resist, he sought speech with the deacon Pelagius. Not without trouble was this obtained, for Pelagius was at all times busy, always beset by suitors of every degree, the Romans holding him in high reverence, and making their appeals to him rather than to the Pope, for whom few had a good word. When at last Marcian was admitted to the deacon's presence, he found himself disconcerted by the long, silent scrutiny of eyes deep read in the souls of men. No word would reach his lips.
'I have been expecting you,' said the deacon at length, gravely, but without severity. 'You have made no haste to come.'
'Most reverend,' replied Marcian, in a tone of the deepest reproach, 'I knew not certainly whether I had indeed made confession to you, or if it was but a dream of fever.'
Pelagius smiled. He was standing by a table, and his hand lay upon an open volume.
'You are of noble blood, lord Marcian,' he continued, 'and the greatness of your ancestors is not unknown to you. Tell me by what motive you have been induced to play the traitor against Rome. I cannot think it was for the gain that perishes. Rather would I suppose you misled by the opinion of Cassiodorus, whose politics were as unsound as his theology. I read here, in his treatise De Anima, that there is neither bliss nor torment for the soul before the great Day of Judgment -- a flagrant heresy, in utter contradiction of the Scriptures, and long ago refuted by the holy Augustine. Can you trust in worldly matters one who is so blinded to the clearest truths of eternity?'
'I confess,' murmured the listener, 'that I thought him justified in his support of the Gothic kingdom.'
'You are content, then, you whose ancestors have sat in the Senate, to be ruled by barbarians? You, a Catholic, revolt not against the dominions of Arians? And so little is your foresight, your speculation, that you dream of permanent conquest of Italy by this leader of a barbaric horde? I tell you, lord Marcian, that ere another twelvemonth has passed, the Goths will be defeated, scattered, lost. The Emperor is preparing a great army, and before the end of summer Belisarius will again land on our shores. Think you Totila can stand against him? Be warned; consider with yourself. Because your confession had indeed something of sickness in it, I have forborne to use it against you as another might have done. But not with impunity can you resume your traitorous practices; of that be assured.'
He paused, looking sternly into Marcian's face.
'I have no leisure to debate with you, to confute your errors. One thing only will I add, before dismissing you to ponder what I have uttered. It is in your power to prove your return to reason and the dignity of a Roman; I need not say how; the occasion will surely ere long present itself, and leave you in no doubt as to my meaning. Remember, then, how I have dealt with you; remember, also, that no such indulgence will be granted to a renewal of your crime against Rome, your sin against God.'
Marcian dropped to his knees; there was a moment of silence; then he arose and went forth.
A week passed, and there came the festival of St. Laurentius. All Rome streamed out to the basilica beyond the Tiburtine Gate, and among those who prayed most fervently at the shrine was Marcian. He besought guidance in an anguish of doubt. Not long ago, in the early days of summer, carnal temptation had once more overcome him, and the sufferings, the perils, of this last month he attributed to that lapse from purity. His illness was perhaps caused by excess of rigour in penitence. To-day he prayed with many tears that the Roman martyr would enlighten him, and make him understand his duty to Rome.
As he was leaving the church, a hand touched him; he turned, and beheld the deacon Leander, who led him apart.
'It is well that I have met you,' said the cleric, with less than his usual bland deliberation. 'A messenger is at your house to bid you come to me this evening. Can you leave Rome to-morrow?'
'On what mission?'
Leander pursed his lips for a moment, rolled his eyes hither and thither, and said with a cautious smile:
'That for which you have been waiting.'
With difficulty Marcian dissembled his agitation. Was this the saint's reply to his prayer? Or was it a temptation of the Evil Power, which it behoved him to resist?
'I am ready,' he said, off-hand.
'You will be alone for the first day's journey, and in the evening you will be met by such attendants as safety demands. Do you willingly undertake the charge? Or is there some new danger which you had not foreseen?'
'There is none,' replied Marcian, 'and I undertake the charge right willingly.'
'Come to me, then, at sunset. The travel is planned in every detail, and the letters ready. What follower goes with you?'
'The same as always -- Sagaris.'
'Confide nothing to him until you are far from Rome. Better if you need not even then.'
Leander broke off the conference, and walked away at a step quicker than his wont. But Marcian, after lingering awhile in troubled thought, returned to the martyr's grave. Long he remained upon his knees, the conflict within him so violent that he could scarce find coherent words of prayer. Meanwhile the August sky had clouded, and thunder was beginning to roll. As he went forth again, a flash of lightning dazzled him. He saw that it was on the left hand, and took courage to follow the purpose that had shaped in his thoughts.
That evening, after an hour's close colloquy with Leander, he betook himself by circuitous way to the dwelling of Pelagius, and with him again held long talk. Then went home, through the dark, still streets, to such slumber as his conscience might permit.
On the morrow of St. Laurentius, at that point of dawn when a man can recognise the face of one who passes, there issued from the Lateran a silent company equipped for travel. In a covered carriage drawn by two horses sat the Pope, beside him a churchman of his household; a second carriage conveyed the deacon Leander and another ecclesiastic; servants and a baggage vehicle brought up the rear. With what speed it could over the ill-paved roads, this procession made for the bank of the Tiber below the Aventine, where, hard by the empty public granaries, a ship lay ready to drop down stream. It was a flight rather than a departure. Having at length made up his mind to obey the Emperor's summons, Vigilius endeavoured to steal away whilst the Romans slept off their day of festival. But he was not suffered to escape thus. Before he had reached the place of embarkation, folk began to run shouting behind his carriage. Ere he could set foot on board the vessel a crowd had gathered. The farewell of the people to their supreme Pontiff was given in a volley of stones and potsherds, whilst the air rang with maledictions.
Notwithstanding his secret hostility, Leander had of late crept into Vigilius' confidence, thus protecting himself against his formidable adversary Pelagius. He was now the Pope's travelling companion as far as Sicily. Had he remained in Rome, the authority of Pelagius would have fallen heavily upon him, and he could scarce have escaped the humiliation of yielding his Gothic captive to Justinian's friend. Apprised only a day before of Vigilius' purpose, he had barely time to plot with Marcian for the conveyance of Veranilda to Totila's camp. This had long been his intention, for, convinced that Totila would rule over Italy, he saw in the favour of the king not only a personal advantage, but the hope of the Western Church in its struggle with Byzantium. Driven at length to act hurriedly, he persuaded himself that he could use no better agent than Marcian, who had so deeply pledged himself to the Gothic cause. Of what had passed between Marcian and Pelagius he of course knew nothing. So, as the ship moved seaward upon tawny Tiber, and day flamed upon the Alban hills, Leander laughed within himself. He enjoyed a plot for its own sake, and a plot, long savoured, which gave him triumph over ecclesiastical rivals, and even over the Emperor Justinian, was well worth the little risk that might ensue When he returned to Rome, it would doubtless be with the victorious Goth -- safe, jubilant, and ere long to be seated in the chair of the Apostle.
At the same hour Marcian was riding along the Praenestine Way, the glory of summer sunrise straight before him. The thought most active in his mind had nothing to do with the contest of nations or with the fate of Rome: it was that on the morrow he should behold Veranilda. For a long time he had ceased to think of her; her name came to his lips in connection with artifice and intrigue, but the maiden herself had faded into nothingness, no longer touched his imagination. He wondered at that fantastic jealousy of Basil from which he had suffered. This morning, the caress of the warm air, the scents wafted about him as he rode over the great brown wilderness, revived his bygone mood. Again he mused on that ideal loveliness which he attributed to the unseen Veranilda For nearly a year she had been sought in vain by her lover, by Greek commanders, by powerful churchmen; she had been made the pretext of far-reaching plots and conspiracies; her name had excited passions vehement and perilous, had been the cause of death. Now he was at length to look upon her; nay, she was to pass into his guardianship, and be by him delivered into the hands of the warrior king. Dreaming, dreaming, he rode along the Praenestine Way.
Though the personal dignity of Pelagius and the calm force of his speech had awed and perturbed him, Marcian soon recovered his habitual mind. He had thought and felt too deeply regarding public affairs to be so easily converted from the cause for which he lived. A new treachery was imposed upon him. When, after receiving all his instructions from Leander, he went to see Pelagius, it was in order to secure his own safety and the fulfilment of his secret mission by a seeming betrayal of him he served. He knew that his every movement was watched; he could not hope to leave Rome without being stopped and interrogated. If he desired to carry out Leander's project -- and he desired it the more ardently the longer he reflected -- his only course was this. Why did it agitate him more than his treachery hitherto? Why did he shake and perspire when he left Pelagius, after promising to bring Veranilda to Rome? He knew not himself -- unless it were due to a fear that he might perform his promise.
This fear it was, perhaps, which had filled his short sleep with dreams now terrible, now luxurious. This fear it was which caught hold of him, at length distinct and intelligible, when, on turning his head towards the city soon after sunrise, he became aware of a group of horsemen following him at a distance of half a mile or so. Thus had it been agreed with Pelagius. The men were to follow him, without approaching, to a certain point of his journey, then would close about him and his attendants, who would be inferior in number, and carry them, with the Gothic maiden, back to Rome. At the sight Marcian drew rein, and for a moment sat in his saddle with bent head, suffering strangely. Sagaris came up to his side, regarded him with anxious eye, and asked whether the heat of the sun's rays incommoded him; whereupon he made a negative sign and rode on.
He tried to laugh. Had he forgotten the subtlety of his plot for deceiving Pelagius? To have made known to the deacon where Veranilda really was, would have been a grave fault in strategy. These armed horsemen imagined that a two days' journey lay before them, whereas the place of Veranildas imprisonment would be reached this evening. The artifice he had elaborated was, to be sure, full of hazard; accident might disconcert everything; the instruments upon whom he reckoned might fail him. But not because of this possibility was his heart so miserably perturbed. It was himself that he dreaded -- the failure of his own purpose, the treachery of his own will.
On he rode in the full eye of the August sun. The vast, undulant plain spread around him; its farms, villas, aqueducts no less eloquent of death than the tombs by the wayside its still air and the cloudless azure above speaking to a man's soul as with the voice of eternity. Marcian was very sensible of such solemn influence. More than once, in traversing this region, he had been moved to bow his head in devotion purer than that which commonly inspired his prayers, but to-day he knew not a moment's calm. All within him was turbid, subject to evil thoughts.
A little before noon he made his first halt. Amid the ruins of a spacious villa two or three peasant families had their miserable home, with a vineyard, a patch of tilled soil, and a flock of goats for their sustenance. Here the travellers, sheltered from the fierce sun, ate of the provisions they carried, and lay resting for a couple of hours. Marcian did not speak with the peasants, but he heard the voice of a woman loud in lamentation, and Sagaris told him that it was for the death of a child, who, straying yesterday at nightfall, had been killed by a wolf. Many hours had the mother wept and wailed, only interrupting her grief to vilify and curse the saint to whose protection her little one was confided.
When he resumed his journey, Marcian kept glancing back until he again caught sight of the company of horsemen; they continued to follow him at the same distance. On he rode, the Alban hills at his right hand, and before him, on its mountain side, the town for which he made. The sun was yet far from setting when he reached Praeneste. Its great walls and citadel towering on the height above told of ancient strength, and many a noble building, within the city and without, monuments of glory and luxury, resisted doom. Sulla's Temple of Fortune still looked down upon its columned terraces, but behind the portico was a Christian church, and where once abode the priests of the heathen sanctuary, the Bishop of Praeneste had now his dwelling. Thither did Marcian straightway betake himself. The bishop, a friend and ally of Leander, received him with cordiality, and eagerly read the letter he brought. Asked whether Vigilius had left Rome, Marcian was able to tell something of the Pope's departure, having heard the story just before his own setting forth; whereat the prelate, a man of jovial aspect, laughed unrestrainedly.
'To supper! to supper!' he exclaimed with hospitable note. 'Time enough for our business afterwards.'
But Marcian could not postpone what he had to say. Begging the bishop's patience, he told how all day long he had been followed by certain horsemen from Rome, who assuredly were sent to track him. His servant, he added, was watching for their entrance into the town, and would observe where they lodged. This, the bishop admitted,. was a matter of some gravity.
'Your guard is ready,' he said. 'Six stout fellows on good horses. But these pursuers outman you. Let me think, let me think.'
Marcian had but to suggest his scheme. This was, to resume his journey as soon as the townsfolk were all asleep, and travel through the night, for there was a moon all but at the full. He might thus gain so much advance of his pursuers that they would not be able to overtake him before he came to the nearest outpost of the Gothic army. After reflection, the bishop gave his approval to this project, and undertook that all should be ready at the fitting hour. He himself would accompany them to the gate of the town, and see them safely on their way. To make surer, Marcian used another device. When he had learned the quarters of the pursuing horsemen he sent Sagaris privily to speak with their leader, warning him to be ready to ride at daybreak. Such a message had of course nothing unexpected for its recipient, who looked upon Marcian as secretly serving Pelagius. It put his mind at ease and released him from the necessity of keeping a night watch. Sagaris, totally ignorant of his master's mission, and of the plans that had just been formed, imagined himself an intermediary in some plot between Marcian and the leader of the horsemen, and performed the deceitful office in all good faith.
The bishop and his guest sat down to supper in an ancient room, of which the floor was a mosaic representing an Egyptian landscape, with a multitude of figures. Marcian would gladly have asked questions about Veranilda; how long she had been at Praeneste, whether the lady Aurelia was in the same convent, and many other things; but he did not venture to make known how little he had enjoyed of Leander's confidence. His reverend host spoke not at all on this subject, which evidently had no interest for him, but abounded in inquiries as to the state of things ecclesiastical at Rome. The supper was excellent; it pained the good prelate that his guest seemed to have so poor an appetite. He vaunted the quality of everything on the table, and was especially enthusiastic about a wine of the south, very aromatic, which had come to him as a present from his friend the Bishop of Rhegium, together with a certain cheese of Sila, exquisite in thymy savour, whereof he ate with prodigious gusto.
It was about the third hour of the night when Sagaris, to his astonishment, was aroused from a first sleep, and bidden prepare at once for travel. Following his master and the bishop, who were not otherwise attended, he passed through a garden to a postern, where, by dim lantern light, he saw, in the street without, a small covered carriage drawn by four mules, and behind it several men on horseback; his master's horse and his own were also in readiness at the door. He mounted, the carriage moved forward; and by a steep descent which needed extreme caution, the gate of the city was soon reached. Here the bishop, who had walked beside Marcian, spoke a word with two drowsy watchmen sitting by the open gateway, bade his guest an affectionate farewell, and stood watching for a few minutes whilst vehicle and riders moved away in the moonlight.
Finding himself well sped from Praeneste, where his pursuers lay sound asleep, Marcian felt an extravagant joy; he could scarce command himself to speak a few necessary words, in an ordinary tone, to the leader of the guard with which he was provided; to shout, to sing, would have better suited his mood. Why he thrilled with such exultancy he could not have truly said; but a weight seemed to be lifted from his mind, and he told himself that the relief was due to knowing that he had done with treachery, done with double-dealing, done with the shame and the peril of such a life as he had led for years. Never could he return to Rome save with the Gothic King; in beguiling Pelagius, he had thrown in his lot irrevocably with the enemies of the Greeks. Now he would play the part of an honest man; his heart throbbed at the thought.
But all this time his eyes were fixed upon the closed vehicle, behind which he rode; and was it indeed the thought of having gained freedom which made his heart so strangely beat? He pushed his horse as near as possible to the carriage; he rode beside it; he stretched out his hand and touched it. As soon as the nature of the road permitted, he gave an order to make better speed, and his horse began to trot; he thought less of the danger from which he was fleeing than of the place of rest where Veranilda would step down from the carriage, and he would look upon her face.
Under the great white moon, the valley into which they were descending lay revealed in every feature, and the road itself was as well illumined as by daylight. On they sped, as fast as the mules could be driven. Near or far sounded from time to time the howl of a wolf, answered by the fierce bark of dogs in some farm or village; the hooting of owls broke upon the stillness, or the pipe of toads from a marshy hollow. By the wayside would be seen moving stealthily a dark form, which the travellers knew to be a bear, but they met no human being, nor anywhere saw the gleam of a light in human habitation. Coming within view of some temple of the old religion, all crossed themselves and murmured a prayer, for this was the hour when the dethroned demons had power over the bodies and the souls of men.
After a long descent they struck into the Via Latina, still in spite of long neglect almost as good a road as when the legions marched over its wheel-furrowed stones. If the information on which Leander had calculated was correct, some three days' journey by this way would bring them within reach of the Gothic king; but Marcian was now debating with himself at what point he should quit the high road, so as to make certain his escape, in case the Greek horsemen began a chase early on the morrow. To the left lay a mountainous region, with byways and little ancient towns, in old time the country of the Hernici; beyond, a journey of two good days, flowed the river Liris, and there, not far from the town of Arpinum, was Marcian's ancestral villa. Of this he thought, as his horse trotted beside or behind the carriage. It was much out of his way; surely there would be no need to go so far in order to baffle pursuers. Yet still he thought of his villa, islanded in the Liris, and seemed to hear through the night the music of tumbling waters, and said within his heart, 'Could I not there lie safe?'
Safe? -- from the Greeks, that is to say, if they persistently searched for him. Safe, until a messenger could reach Totila, and let him know that Veranilda was rescued.
An hour after midnight, one of the mules' traces broke. In the silence of the stoppage, whilst the driver was mending the harness as best he could, Marcian alighted, stepped to the side of the vehicle, laid a hand on the curtain which concealed those within, and spoke in a subdued voice.
'Is all well with you, lady?'
'As well,' came the answer, 'as it can be with one who dreads her unknown fate.'
The soft accents made Marcian tremble. He expected to hear a sweet voice, but this was sweeter far than he could have imagined: its gentleness, its sadness, utterly overcame him, so that he all but wept in his anguish of delight.
'Have no fear,' he whispered eagerly. 'It is freedom that awaits you. I am Marcian -- Marcian, the friend of Basil.'
There sounded a low cry of joy; then the two names were repeated, his and that of his friend, and again Marcian quivered.
'You will be no more afraid?' he said, as though laughingly.
'Oh no! The Blessed Virgin be thanked!'
An owl's long hoot wailed through the stillness, seeming to fill with its infinite melancholy the great vault of moonlit heaven. In Marcian it produced a sudden, unaccountable fear. Leaping on to his horse, he cursed the driver for slowness. Another minute, and they were speeding onward.
Marcian watched anxiously the course of the silver orb above them. When it began to descend seaward, the animals were showing signs of weariness; before daybreak he must perforce call a halt. In conversation with the leader of his guard, he told the reason of their hasting on by night (known already to the horseman, a trusted follower of the Bishop of Praeneste), and at length announced his resolve to turn off the Latin Way into the mountains, with the view of gaining the little town Aletrium, whence, he explained, they could cross the hills to the valley of the Liris, and so descend again to the main road. It was the man's business to obey; he let fall a few words, however, concerning the dangers of the track; it was well known that bands of marauders frequented this country, moving onward before the slow advance of the Gothic troops. Marcian reflected, but none the less held to his scheme. The beasts were urged along an upward way, which, just about the setting of the moon, brought them to a poor village with a little church. Marcian set himself to discover the priest, and, when this good man was roused from slumber, spoke in his ear a word which had great effect. With little delay stabling was found, and a place of repose for Marcian's followers; he himself would rest under the priest's roof, whither he conducted Veranilda and a woman servant who sat with her in the carriage. The face which was so troubling his imagination he did not yet see, for Veranilda kept the hood close about her as she passed by candle light up steps to the comfortless and dirty little chamber which was the best she could have.
'Rest in peace,' whispered Marcian as the door closed. 'I guard you.'
For an hour or more he sat talking with his host over a pitcher of wine, found how far he was from Aletrium, and heard with satisfaction that the brigand bands seemed to have gone higher into the mountains. The presbyter asked eagerly for Roman news, and cautiously concerning King Totila, whom it was evident he regarded with no very hostile feeling. As the day broke he stretched himself on his host's bed, there being no other for him, and there dozed for two or three hours, far too agitated to enjoy a sound sleep.
When he arose, he went forth into the already hot sunshine, looked at the poor peasants' cottages, and talked with Sagaris, whose half-smiling face seemed anxious to declare that he knew perfectly well on what business they were engaged. At this hour, in all probability, the horsemen of Pelagius were galloping along the Latin Way, in hope of overtaking the fugitives. It seemed little likely that they would search in this direction, and the chances were that they would turn back when their horses got tired out. Of them, indeed, Marcian thought but carelessly; his hard-set brows betokened another subject of disquiet. Should he, after Aletrium, go down again to the Latin Way, or should he push a few miles further to the valley of the Liris, and to his own villa?
To-day, being the first day of the week, there was a gathering to hear mass. Marcian, though he had that in his mind which little accorded with religious worship, felt himself drawn to the little church, and knelt among the toil-worn folk. Here, as always when he heard the liturgy, his heart melted, his soul was overcome with awe. From earliest childhood he had cherished a peculiar love and reverence for the Eucharistic prayer, which was associated with his noblest feelings, his purest aspirations. As he heard it now, here amid the solitude of the hills, it brought him help such as he needed.
'Vere dignum et justum est, aequum et salutare, nos tibi semper et ubique gratias agere, Domine sancte, Pater omnipotens, aeterne Deus.'
When at the end he rose, these words were still resonant within him. He turned to go forth, and there behind, also just risen from her knees, stood a veiled woman, at the sight of whom he thrilled with astonishment. No peasant she; for her attire, though but little adorned, told of refinement, and the grace of her figure, the simple dignity of her attitude, would alone have marked her out among the girls and women who were leaving the church, their eyes all turned upon her and on the female attendant standing respectfully near. Through the veil which covered her face and hung about her shoulders, Marcian could dimly discern lips and eyebrows.
'Lord Marcian, may I speak with you?'
It was the voice of last night, and again it shook him with an ecstasy which had more of dread than of joy.
'You here?' he replied, speaking very low. 'You have heard the mass?'
'I am a Catholic. My religion is that of Basil.'
'God be thanked!' broke from Marcian. And his exclamation meant more than it conveyed to the listener.
'May you tell me whither we are going?' was the next question from the veiled lips.
The church was now empty, but in the doorway appeared faces curiously peering. Marcian looking in that direction seemed for a moment to find no reply; his lips were parted, and his breath came rapidly; then he whispered:
'Not far from here there is a villa. There you shall rest in safety until Basil comes.'
'He is near?'
'Already I have summoned him.'
'0 kind Marcian!' uttered the low, sweet voice. 'Oh, true and brave friend!'
In silence they walked together to the priest's house. Marcian had now put off all irresolution. He gave orders to his guard; as soon as the horses had sufficiently rested, they would push on for Aletrium, and there pass the night. The start was made some two hours after noon. Riding once more beside the carriage, Marcian felt his heart light: passions and fears were all forgotten; the sun flaming amid the pale blue sky, the violet shadows of the mountains, the voice of cicadas made rapture to his senses. It was as though Veranilda's beauty, not even yet beheld, rayed something of itself upon all the visible world. Never had a summer's day shone so gloriously for him; never had he so marked the hues of height and hollow, the shape of hills, the winding of a stream. Where an ascent made the pace slow, he alighted, walked by the vehicle, and exchanged a few words with her who sat behind the curtain.
At length Aletrium came in view, a little town in a strong position on the mountain side, its walls and citadel built in old time, long unused for defence, but resisting ages with their cyclopean force. On arriving, they found a scene of disorder, misery and fear. This morning the place had been attacked by a brigand horde, which had ravaged at will: the church was robbed of its sacred vessels, the beasts of burden were driven away, and, worst of all, wives and daughters of the defenceless townsmen had suffered outrage. Marcian, with that air of authority which he well knew how to assume, commanded the attendance of the leading citizens and spoke with them in private. Finding them eager for the arrival of the Goths, to whom they looked rather than to the distant Greeks for protection against ruinous disorder (already they had despatched messengers to Totila entreating his aid), he made known to them that he was travelling to meet the Gothic outposts, and promised to hasten the king's advance. At present, there seemed to be no more danger, the marauders having gone on into the Apennines; so Marcian obtained lodging for Veranilda and for himself in the priest's house. Only when he was alone did he reflect upon the narrowness of his escape from those fierce plunderers, and horror shook him. There remained but half a day's journey to his villa. He was so impatient to arrive there, and to dismiss the horsemen, that though utterly wearied, he lay awake through many hours of darkness, hearing the footsteps of men who patrolled the streets, and listening with anxious ear for any sound of warning.
He rose in the twilight, and again held conference with those of the townsmen who were stoutest in the Gothic cause. To them he announced that he should travel this day as far as Arpinum (whither he was conducting a lady who desired to enter a convent hard by that city), and thence should proceed in search of Totila, for whom, he assured his hearers, he carried letters of summons from the leading churchmen at Rome. This news greatly cheered the unhappy Aletrians, who had been troubled by the thought that the Goths were heretics. If Roman ecclesiastics closed their eyes to this obstacle, the inhabitants of a little mountain town evidently need nurse no scruples in welcoming the conqueror. With acclamations and good wishes, the crowd saw Marcian and his train set forth along the road over the hills; before the sun had shed its first beam into the westward valley, they had lost sight of Aletrium.
Not a word of the perils escaped had been allowed to reach Veranilda's ear; exhausted by her journeying and her emotions, she had slept soundly through the whole night, and this morning, when Marcian told her how near was their destination, she laughed light-heartedly as a child. But not yet had he looked upon her countenance. At Aletrium he might have done so had he willed, but he withheld himself as if from a dread temptation.
Never had he known such tremours of cowardliness as on this ride over the hills. He strained his eyes in every direction, and constantly imagined an enemy where there was none. The brigands, as he found by inquiry of labouring peasants, had not even passed this way. He would not halt, though the heat of the sun grew terrible. At length, when exhaustion threatened men and beasts, they surmounted a ridge, issued from a forest of chestnut-trees, and all at once, but a little way below them, saw the gleam of the river Liris.
Not yet the 'taciturnus amnis,' which it becomes in the broad, seaward valley far below, the Liris at this point parts into two streams, enclosing a spacious island, and on either side of the island leaps with sound and foam, a river kindred to the mountains which feed its flood. Between the two cataracts, linked to the river banks with great arched bridges, stood Marcian's villa. Never more than a modest country house, during the last fifty years an almost total neglect had made of the greater part an uninhabitable ruin. A score of slaves and peasants looked after what remained of the dwelling and cultivated the land attached to it, garden, oliveyard, vineyard, partly on the island, partly beyond the river in the direction of Arpinum, which historic city, now but sparsely peopled, showed on the hillside a few miles away. Excepting his house in Rome, this was all the property that Marcian possessed. It was dear to him because of the memories of his childhood, and for another reason which sprang out of the depths of his being: on the night after his mother's death (he was then a boy much given to seeing visions) her spirit appeared to him, and foretold that he too should die in this house 'at peace with God.' This phrase, on which he had often brooded, Marcian understood to mean that he should reach old age; and it had long been his settled intention to found in the ruinous villa a little monastery, to which, when his work was over, he could retire to pass the close of life. And now, as he rode down behind the carriage, he was striving to keep his thought fixed on this pious purpose. He resolved that he would not long delay. As soon as Veranilda was safe, he would go on foot, as a pilgrim, to the monastery at Casinum, which were but two or three days' journey, and speak of his intention to the aged and most holy Benedict. Thus fortified, he rode with bright visage down into the valley, and over the bridge, and so to his own gate.
The steward and the housekeeper, who were man and wife, speedily stood before him, and he bade them make ready with all expedition certain chambers long unoccupied, merely saying that a lady would for some days be his guest. Whilst Sagaris guided the horsemen to the stables, and received them hospitably in the servants' quarter, Marcian, using a more formal courtesy than hitherto, conducted his charge into the great hall, and begged her to be seated for a few minutes, until her room was prepared. Seeing that fatigue scarce suffered her to reply, he at once withdrew, leaving her alone with her handmaiden. And yet he had not beheld Veranilda's face.
Himself unable to take repose, he strayed about the purlieus of the villa, in his ears the sound of rushing water, before his eyes a flitting vision which he would not see. He had heard from his steward the latest news of the countryside; it was said in Arpinum that the Gothic forces were at length assembled for the march on Rome; at Aquinum Totila would be welcomed, and what resistance was he likely to meet with all along the Latin Way? When the horsemen had refreshed themselves, Marcian summoned the leader; their services, he said, would no longer be necessary; he bade them depart as early as might be on the morrow, and bear with all speed to their lord the bishop an important letter which he forthwith wrote and gave to the man, together with a generous guerdon. This business despatched, he again wandered hither and thither, incapable of rest, incapable of clear thought, fever in his heart and in his brain.
As the sun sank, fear once more beset him. This house lay open on all sides, its only protection being a couple of dogs, which prowled at large. He thought with dread of the possibility of a brigand attack. But when night had fallen, when all lights except his own were extinguished, when no sound struck against the deep monotone of the cataracts, this emotion yielded before another, which no less harassed his mind. In the hall, in the corridors, in the garden-court, he paced ceaselessly, at times walking in utter darkness, for not yet had the moon risen. When at length its rays fell upon the pillars of the upper gallery where Veranilda slept, he stood looking towards her chamber, and turned away at length with a wild gesture, like that of a demoniac in torment.
The man was torn between spiritual fervour and passions of the flesh. With his aspiration to saintliness blended that love of his friend which was the purest affection he had known in all the years of manhood; yet this very love became, through evil thoughts, an instrument against him, being sullied, poisoned by the basest spirit of jealousy, until it seemed all but to have turned to hate. One moment he felt himself capable of acting nobly, even as he had resolved when at mass in the little mountain church; his bosom glowed with the defiance of every risk; he would guard Veranilda secretly until he could lay her hand in that of Basil. The next, he saw only danger, impossibility, in such a purpose, and was anxious to deliver the beautiful maiden to the king of her own race as soon as might be -- lest worse befell. Thus did he strive with himself, thus was he racked and rent under the glowing moon.
At dawn he slept. When he rose the horsemen had long since set forth on their journey home. He inquired which road they had taken. But to this no one had paid heed; he could only learn that they had crossed the river by the westward bridge, and so perhaps had gone back by way of Aletrium, instead of descending the valley to the Latin Way. Even yet Marcian did not feel quite safe from his Greek pursuers. He feared a meeting between them and the Praenestines.
Having bathed (a luxury after waterless Rome), and eaten a morsel of bread with a draught of his own wine, he called his housekeeper, and bade her make known to the lady, his guest, that he begged permission to wait upon her. With but a few minutes' delay Veranilda descended to the room which lay behind the atrium. Marcian, loitering among the ivied plane-trees without, was told of her coming, and at once entered.
She was alone, standing at the back of the room; her hands hanging linked before her, the lower part of the arms white against the folds of a russet-coloured tunic. And Marcian beheld her face.
He took a few rapid steps toward her, checked himself, bowed profoundly, and said in a somewhat abrupt voice:
'Gracious lady, is it by your own wish that you are unattended? Or have my women, by long disuse, so forgotten their duties ----'
Veranilda interrupted him.
'I assure you it was my own wish, lord Marcian. We must speak of things which are not for others' hearing.'
In the same unnatural voice, as though he put constraint upon himself for the performance of a disagreeable duty, he begged her to be seated, and Veranilda, not without betraying a slight trouble of surprise, took the chair to which he pointed. But he himself did not sit down. In the middle of the room stood a great bronze candelabrum, many-branched for the suspension of lamps, at its base three figures, Pluto, Neptune, and Proserpine. It was the only work of any value which the villa now contained, and Marcian associated it with the memories of his earliest years. As a little child he had often gazed at those three faces, awed by their noble gravity, and, with a child's diffidence, he had never ventured to ask what beings these were. He fixed his eyes upon them now, to avoid looking at Veranilda. She, timidly glancing at him, said in her soft, low voice, with the simplest sincerity:
'I have not yet found words in which to thank you, lord Marcian.'
'My thanks are due to you, dear lady, for gracing this poor house with your presence.'
His tone was more suavely courteous. For an instant he looked at her, and his lips set themselves in something meant for a smile.
'This is the end of our journey?' she asked.
'For some days -- if the place does not displease you.'
'How could I be ill at ease in the house of Basil's friend, and with the promise that Basil will soon come?'
Marcian stared at the face of Proserpine, who seemed to regard him with solemn thoughtfulness.
'Had you any forewarning of your release from the monastery?' he asked of a sudden.
'None. None whatever.'
'You thought you would remain there for long to come?'
'I had not dared to think of that.'
Marcian took a few paces, glanced at the sweet face, the beautiful head with its long golden hair, and came back to his place by the candelabrum, on which he rested a trembling hand.
'Had they spoken of making you a nun?'
A look of dread came upon her countenance, and she whispered, 'Once or twice.'
'You would never have consented?'
'Only if I had known that release was hopeless, or that Basil ----'
Her voice failed.
'That Basil ----?' echoed Marcian's lips, in an undertone.
'That he was dead.'
'You never feared that he might have forgotten you?'
Again his accents were so hard that Veranilda gazed at him in troubled wonder.
'You never feared that?' he added, with fugitive eyes.
'Had I dreamt of it,' she replied, 'I think I should not live.' Then in a voice of anxious humility, 'Could Basil forget me?'
'Indeed, I should not think it easy,' murmured the other, his eyes cast down. 'And what,' he continued abruptly, 'was said to you when you left the convent? In what words did they take leave of you?'
'With none at all. I was bidden prepare for a journey, and soon after they led me to the gates. I knew nothing, nor did the woman with me.'
'Was the lady Aurelia in the same convent?' Marcian next inquired.
'I never saw her after we had landed from the ship which carried us from Surrentum?'
'You do not know, of course, that Petronilla is dead?'
He told her of that, and of other events such as would interest her, but without uttering the name of Basil. Above all, he spoke of Totila, lauding the victorious king who would soon complete his triumph by the conquest of Rome.
'I had all but forgotten,' were Veranilda's words, when she had listened anxiously. 'I thought only of Basil.'
He turned abruptly from her, seemed to reflect for a moment, and said with formal politeness:
'Permit me now to leave you, lady. This house is yours. I would it offered you worthier accommodation. As soon as I have news, I will again come before you.'
Veranilda rose whilst he was speaking. Her eyes were fixed upon him, wistfully, almost pleadingly, and before he had reached the exit she advanced a step, with lips parted as if to beseech his delay. But he walked too hurriedly, and was gone ere she durst utter a word.
At the same hurried pace, gazing before him and seeing nothing, Marcian left the villa, and walked until he came to the river side. Here was a jutting rock known as the Lover's Leap; story told of a noble maiden, frenzied by unhappy love, who had cast herself into the roaring waterfall. Long he stood on the brink, till his eyes dazzled from the sun-stricken foam. His mind was blasted with shame; he could not hold his head erect. In sorry effort to recover self-respect he reasoned inwardly thus:
'Where Basil may be I know not. If he is still at Asculum many days must pass before a summons from me could bring him hither. He may already be on his way to join the king, as I bade him in my last message. The uncertainty, the danger of this situation, can be met only in one way. On leaving Rome I saw my duty plain before me. A desire to pleasure my friend made me waver, but I was wrong -- if Basil is to have Veranilda for his bride he can only receive her from the hands of Totila. Anything else would mean peril to the friend I love, and disrespect, even treachery, to the king I honour. And so it shall be; I will torment myself no more.'
He hastened back into the villa, summoned Sagaris, and bade him be ready in half an hour to set forth on a journey of a day or two. He then wrote a brief letter to the king of the Goths. It was in the Gothic tongue, such Gothic as a few Romans could command for everyday use. Herein he told that Veranilda, intrusted to him by the deacon Leander to be conducted to the king's camp, had arrived in safety at his villa by Arpinum. The country being disturbed, he had thought better to wait here with his charge until he could learn the king's pleasure, which he begged might be made known to him as soon as possible.
'This,' he said, when Sagaris appeared before him equipped for travel, 'you will deliver into the king's own hands. At Aquinum you will be directed to his camp, which cannot be far beyond. Danger there is none between here and there. Make your utmost speed.'
Many were the confidential missions which Sagaris had discharged; yet, looking now into his man's face, the master was troubled by a sudden misgiving. The state of his own mind disposed him to see peril everywhere. At another time he would not have noted so curiously a sort of gleam in the Syrian's eye, a something on the fellow's cunning, sensual lips, which might mean anything or nothing. Did Sagaris divine who the veiled lady was? From the bishop's man he could not have learned it, they themselves, as the bishop had assured Marcian, being totally ignorant in the matter. If he guessed the truth, as was likely enough after all the talk he had heard concerning Veranilda, was it a danger? Had Sagaris any motive for treachery?
'Listen,' continued Marcian, in a tone such as he had never before used with his servant, a tone rather of entreaty than of command. 'Upon the safe and swift delivery of that letter more depends than you can imagine. You will not lack your reward. But not a word to any save the king. Should any one else question you, you will say that you bear only a verbal message, and that you come direct from Rome.'
'My lord shall be obeyed,' answered the slave, 'though I die under torture.'
'Of that,' said Marcian, with a forced laugh, 'you need have no fear. But, hark you!' He hesitated, again searching the man's countenance. 'You might chance to meet some friend of mine who would inquire after me. No matter who it be -- were it even the lord Basil -- you will answer in the same words, saying that I am still in Rome. You understand me? Were it even lord Basil who asked?'
'It shall be as my lord commands,' replied the slave, his face set in unctuous solemnity.
'Go, then. Lose not a moment.'
Marcian watched him ride away in the blaze of the cloudless sun. The man's head was sheltered with a broad-brimmed hat of the lightest felt, and his horse's with a cluster of vine-leaves. He rode away at a quick trot, the while dust rising in a cloud behind him.
And Marcian lived through the day he knew not how. It was a day of burning sunshine, of heat scarce tolerable even in places the most sheltered. Clad only in a loose tunic, bare-armed, bare-footed, he lay or sauntered wherever shade was dense, as far as possible from the part of the villa consecrated to his guest. Hour after hour crawled by, an eternity of distressful idleness. And, even while wishing for the day's end, he dreaded the coming of the night.
It came; the silent, lonely night, the warm, perfumed night, the season of fierce temptations, of dreadful opportunity. Never had the passionate soul of Marcian been so manifestly lured by the Evil One, never had it fought so desperately in the strength of religious hopes and fears. He knelt, he prayed, his voice breaking upon the stillness with anguish of supplication. Between him and the celestial vision rose that face which he had at length beheld, a face only the more provocative of sensual rage because of its sweet purity, its flawless truth. Then he flung himself upon the stones, bruised his limbs, lay at length exhausted, as if lifeless.
No longer could he strengthen himself by the thought of loyalty in friendship; that he had renounced. Yet he strove to think of Basil, and, in doing so, knew that he still loved him. For Basil he would do anything, suffer anything, lose anything; but when he imaged Basil with Veranilda, at once his love turned to spleen, a sullen madness possessed him, he hated his friend to the death.
By his own order, two watchmen stood below the stairs which led to Veranilda's chamber. Nigh upon midnight he walked in that direction, walked in barefooted stealth, listening for a movement, a voice. Nearer and nearer he approached, till he saw at length the ray of a lantern; but no step, no murmur, told of wakeful guard. Trembling as though with cold, though sweat streamed over his body, he strode forward; there, propped against the wall, sat the two slaves fast asleep. Marcian glanced at the stairs; his face in the dim lantern light was that of a devil. All of a sudden one of the men started, and opened his eyes. Thereupon Marcian caught up a staff that lay beside them, and began to belabour them both with savage blows. Fiercely, frantically, he plied his weapon, until the delinquents, who had fallen to their knees before him, roared for mercy.
'Let me find you sleeping again,' he said in a low voice, 'and your eyes shall be burnt out.'
He stole away into the darkness, and the men whispered to each other that he had gone mad. For Marcian was notably humane with his slaves, never having been known even to inflict a whipping. Perhaps they were even more astonished at this proof that their master seriously guarded the privacy of his guest; last night they had slept for long hours undisturbed, and, on waking, congratulated each other with familiar jests on having done just what was expected of them.
The morn broke dark and stormy. Thunder-clouds purpled before the rising sun, and ere mid-day there fell torrents of rain. Heedless of the sky, Marcian rode forth this morning; rode aimlessly about the hills, for the villa was no longer endurable to him. He talked awhile with a labouring serf, who told him that the plague had broken out in Arpinum, where, during the last week or two, many had died. From his steward he had already heard the same news, but without heeding it; it now alarmed him, and for some hours fear had a wholesome effect upon his thoughts. In the coolness following upon the storm, he enjoyed a long, tranquil sleep. And this day he did not see Veranilda.
A mile or two down the valley was a church, built by Marcian's grandfather, on a spot where he had been saved from great peril; the land attached to it supported two priests and certain acolytes, together with a little colony of serfs. On his ride this morning Marcian had passed within view of the church, and would have gone thither but for his rain drenched clothing. Now, during the second night of temptation, he resolved to visit the priests as soon as it was day and to bring one of them back with him to the villa, to remain as long as Veranilda should be there. Firm in this purpose he rose with the rising sun, called for his horse, and rode to the bridge. There, looking down at the white cataract, stood Veranilda and her attendant.
He alighted. With a timid smile the maiden advanced to meet him.
'Abroad so early?' were his first words, a mere tongue-found phrase.
'I was tempted by the fresh morning. It does not displease you, lord Marcian?'
'Nay, I am glad.'
'It is so long,' continued the gentle voice, 'since I was free to walk under the open sky.'
Marcian forgot that his gaze was fixed upon her, forgot that he was silent, forgot the purpose with which he had ridden forth.
'I hoped I might see you to-day,' she added. 'You have yet no news for me?'
The blue eyes drooped sadly.
'To-morrow, perhaps,' she murmured. Then, with an effort to seem cheerful, as if ashamed of her troubled thought, 'I had listened so long to a sound of falling water that I could not resist the desire to see it. How beautiful it is!'
Marcian felt surprise; he himself saw the cataract as an object of beauty, but had seldom heard it so spoken of, and could least of all have expected such words on the lips of a woman, dread seeming to him the more natural impression.
'That on the other side,' he said, pointing across the island, 'is more beautiful still. And there is shade, whilst here the sun grows too hot. But you must not walk so far. My horse has a very even pace. If you would let me lift you to the saddle ----'
'Oh, gladly!' she answered, with a little laugh of pleasure.
And it was done. For a moment he held her, for a moment felt the warmth and softness of her flesh; then she sat sideways upon the horse, looking down at Marcian with startled gaiety. He showed her how to hold the reins, and the horse went gently forward.
'It makes me a child again,' she exclaimed. 'I have never ridden since I was a little girl, when my father ----'
Her voice died away; her look was averted, and Marcian, remembering the shame that mingled with her memories, began to talk of other things.
By a path that circled the villa, they came to a little wood of ilex, which shadowed the brink of the larger cataract. Marcian had bidden Veranilda's woman follow them, but as they entered the wood, his companion looking eagerly before her, he turned and made a gesture of dismissal, which the servant at once obeyed. In the shadiest spot which offered a view of the plunging river, he asked Veranilda if she would alight.
'Willingly, I would spend an hour here,' she replied. 'The leafage and the water make such a delightful freshness.'
'I have anticipated your thought,' said Marcian. 'The woman is gone to bid them bring seats.'
Veranilda glanced back in surprise and saw that they were alone. She thanked him winsomely, and then, simply as before, accepted his help. Again Marcian held her an instant, her slim, light body trembling when he set her down, as if from a burden which strained his utmost force. She stepped forward to gaze at the fall. He, with an exclamation of alarm, caught her hand and held it.
'You are too rash,' he said in a thick voice. 'The depth, the roar of the waters, will daze you.'
Against his burning palm, her hand was cool as a lily leaf. He did not release it, though he knew that his peril from that maidenly touch was greater far than hers from the gulf before them. Veranilda, accepting his protection with the thoughtlessness of a child, leaned forward, uttering her wonder and her admiration. He, the while, watched her lips, fed his eyes upon her cheek, her neck, the golden ripples of her hair. At length she gently offered to draw her hand away. A frenzy urged him to resist, but madness yielded to cunning, and he released her.
'Of course Basil has been here,' she was saying.
'Never? Oh, the joy of showing him this when he comes! Lord Marcian, you do not think it will be long?'
Her eyes seemed as though they would read in the depth of his; again the look of troubled wonder rose to her countenance.
'It will not be more than a few days?' she added, in a timid undertone, scarce audible upon the water's deeper note.
'I fear it may be longer,' replied Marcian.
He heard his own accents as those of another man. He, his very self, willed the utterance of certain words, kind, hopeful, honest; but something else within him commanded his tongue, and, ere he knew it, he had added:
'You have never thought that Basil might forget you?'
Veranilda quivered as though she had been struck.
'Why do you again ask me that question?' she said gently, but no longer timidly. 'Why do you look at me so? Surely,' her voice sank, 'you could not have let me feel so happy if Basil were dead?'
'Then why do you look so strangely at me? Ah, he is a prisoner?'
'Not so. No man's liberty is less in danger.'
She clasped her hands before her. 'You make me suffer. I was so light of heart, and now -- your eyes, your silence. Oh, speak, lord Marcian!'
'I have hidden the truth so long because I knew not how to utter it. Veranilda, Basil is false to you.'
Her hands fell; her eyes grew wider in wonder. She seemed not to understand what she had heard, and to be troubled by incomprehension rather than by a shock of pain.
'False to me?' she murmured. 'How false?'
'He loves another woman, and for her sake has turned to the Greeks.'
Still Veranilda gazed wonderingly.
'Things have come to pass of which you know nothing,' pursued Marcian, forcing his voice to a subdued evenness, a sad gravity. 'Listen whilst I tell you all. Had you remained but a few days longer at Cumae, you would have been seized by the Greeks and sent to Constantinople; for the Emperor Justinian himself had given this command. You came to Surrentum; you plighted troth with Basil; he would have wedded you, and -- not only for safety's sake, but because he wished well to the Goths -- would have sought the friendship of Totila. But you were carried away; vainly we searched for you; we feared you had been delivered to the Greeks. In Rome, Basil was tempted by a woman, whom he had loved before ever he saw you, a woman beautiful, but evil hearted, her name Heliodora. She won him back to her; she made him faithless to you and to the cause of the Goths. Little by little, I learnt how far he had gone in treachery. He had discovered where you were, but no longer desired to release you that you might become his wife. To satisfy the jealousy of Heliodora, and at the same time to please the Greek commander in Rome, he plotted to convey you to Constantinople. I having discovered this plot, found a way to defeat it. You escaped but narrowly. When I carried you away from Praeneste, pursuers were close behind us, therefore it was that we travelled through the night. Here you are in safety, for King Totila is close at hand, and will guard you against your enemies.'
Veranilda pressed her hands upon her forehead, and stood mute. As his eyes shifted furtively about her, Marcian caught sight of something black and undulant stirring among stones near her feet; at once he grasped her by the arm, and drew her towards him.
'A viper!' he exclaimed, pointing.
'What of that?' was her reply, with a careless glance. 'I would not stir a step to escape its fangs.'
And, burying her face in her hands, she wept.
These tears, this attitude of bewildered grief, were Marcian's encouragement. He had dreaded the innocence of her eyes lest it should turn to distrust and rejection. Had she refused to believe him, he knew not how he would have persisted in his villainy; for, even in concluding his story, it seemed to him that he must betray himself; so perfidious sounded to him the voice which he could hardly believe his own, and so slinking-knavish did he feel the posture of his body, the movements of his limbs. The distress which should have smitten him to the heart restored his baser courage. Again he spoke with the sad gravity of a sympathetic friend.
'Dearest lady, I cannot bid you be comforted, but I entreat you to pardon me, the hapless revealer of your misfortune. Say only that you forgive me.'
'What is there to forgive?' she answered, checking her all but silent sobs. 'You have told what it behoved you to tell. And it may be' -- her look changed of a sudden -- 'that I am too hasty in embracing sorrow. How can I believe that Basil has done this? Are you not misled by some false suspicion? Has not some enemy slandered him to you? What can you say to make me credit a thing so evil?'
'Alas! It were but too easy for me to lengthen a tale which all but choked me in the telling; I could name others who know, but to you they would be only names. That of Heliodora, had you lived in Rome, were more than enough.'
'You say he loved her before?'
'He did, dear lady, and when her husband was yet living. Now that he is dead ----'
'Have you yet told me all?' asked Veranilda, gazing fixedly at him. 'Has he married her?'
'Not yet -- I think.'
Again she bowed her head. For a moment her tears fell silently, then she looked up once more fighting against her anguish.
'It cannot be true that he would have given me to the Greeks; that he may have forgotten me, that he may have turned to another love, I can perhaps believe -- for what am I that Basil should love me? But to scheme my injury, to deliver me to our enemies ---- Oh, you are deceived, you are deceived!'
Marcian was silent, with eyes cast down. In the branches, cicadas trilled their monotone. The viper, which had been startled away, again showed its lithe blackness among the stones behind Veranilda, and Marcian, catching sight of it, again touched her arm.
'The snake! Come away from this place.'
Veranilda drew her arm back as if his touch stung her.
'I will go,' she said. 'I must be alone -- my thoughts are in such confusion I know not what I say.'
'Say but one word,' he pleaded. 'Having rescued you, I knew not how to provide for your security save under ward of the king. Totila is noble and merciful; all Italy will soon be his, and the Gothic rule be re-established. Assure me that I have done well and wisely.'
'I hope you have,' answered Veranilda, regarding him for an instant. 'But I know nothing; I must bear what befalls. Let me go to my chamber, lord Marcian, and sit alone and think.'
He led her back into the villa, and they parted without another word.